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Supreme Court Weighs Possibility of New Sentences for ‘Juvenile Lifers’

By Mark Walsh — October 13, 2015 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday took up the case of the life-without-parole punishment of a Louisiana high school student convicted of murdering a sheriff’s deputy. As it happens, Henry Montgomery was a 17-year-old junior at Scotlandville Senior High School in East Baton Rouge in 1963 when the murder occurred.

John F. Kennedy was president, public schools in Louisiana were still segregated (Montgomery’s was all-black), and racial turmoil pervaded the areas where a black teenager shot to death a white law-enforcement officer. Montgomery was convicted and sentenced to death under Louisiana law. But he later won a new trial, was convicted again, and this time sentenced to life without parole.

Montgomery is now 69 years old, and he has been in the state’s famous Angola prison for more than half a century. His case has reached the U.S. Supreme Court because, in 2012, the court ruled that mandatory life without parole for those under 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. A key question left unresolved by that decision in Miller v. Alabama was whether it would apply retroactively to some 2,500 people already serving such sentences for crimes committed as juveniles.

The Louisiana Supreme Court denied Montgomery’s plea for reconsideration of his sentence, consistent with its ruling in another prisoner’s case that the Miller decision was procedural rather than substantive in nature, and that meant under U.S. Supreme Court rulings that it was not retroactive. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Montgomery’s plea. In oral arguments on Oct. 13 in Montgomery v. Louisiana (Case No. 14-280), lawyers for the prisoner and for President Obama’s administration urged the justices to make Miller retroactive.

“Miller said that juvenile homicide offenders should not have to die in prison with no chance for rehabilitation and no consideration of youth,” Mark D. Plaisance, Montgomery’s lawyer, told the court. “That important rule changed the outcomes available.”

“The rule in Miller v. Alabama, in our view, is a substantive rule because it goes far beyond merely regulating the procedure by which youths are sentenced for homicide crimes,” Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Michael R. Dreeben said. “It compelled the state to adopt new substantive sentencing options, an option that is less severe than life without parole.”

S. Kyle Duncan, the lawyer representing the state of Louisiana, told the justices that Miller was not a substantive change in the law because it did not take life-without-parole sentences completely off the table. And there would be “adverse consequences” of re-sentencing prisoners so long after their crimes."Miller itself doesn’t represent a bedrock revolution in sentencing practices,” Duncan said. “It’s an incremental change.”

Much of the argument was technical, centering on questions such as whether the Supreme Court even had proper jurisdiction in this case to consider the retroactivity of Miller. Thus, it was hard to get a feel for how the justices were leaning, though there was some sentiment that the case might have to be dismissed on procedural grounds.

Some briefs in the case struck more emotional tones, on both sides. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on Montgomery’s side by the Equal Justice Initiative, lawyer Bryan A. Stevenson outlined some of the stories of other so-called “juvenile lifers” who have “never had a sentencing hearing where the sentencer was permitted to take into account the offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it.”

But a brief on the side of the state of Louisiana was filed by the National Association of Victims of Juvenile Murderers and Becky Wilson, the daughter of Charles Hurt, the deputy sheriff killed by Montgomery in 1963. “Montgomery’s crime deprived Baton Rouge of a dedicated police officer who saw beyond race at a time when such vision was uncommon at best,” says the brief on behalf of Wilson and the victims’ group, which adds that Hurt was a white officer assigned to a black neighborhood. “In addition, it took a father away from a family, leaving behind a widow and three young children who struggled to make up for the loss. Applying Miller retroactively will force Wilson to revisit the traumatic results of Montgomery’s crime.”

A decision in the case is expected by next June.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.