U.S. Supreme Court Voted 6-3 to Extend an Earlier Ruling that Struck Down Automatic Life Terms With No Chance of Parole for Teenage Killers

About 1,000 prison inmates, some of whom have been in prison for more than 50 years for murders they committed as teenagers, may get a chance to be free.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Henry Montgomery, who has been in prison for more than 50 years for killing a sheriff’s deputy in Baton Rouge, La., in 1963. Montgomery was then just 17 years old and was playing hooky from school when he encountered Deputy Charles Hurt. Hurt was a truant officer. Panicked, Henry pulled a gun from his pocket and fatally shot Hurt.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, said, “Prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

The opinion also said states do not have to resentence prisoners who are serving life terms. Instead, the state can conduct parole hearings with no guarantee of release if inmates fail to show that they have been rehabilitated.

Louisiana is among seven states that refuse to apply the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling affecting about 1,200 inmates who may now qualify for parole hearings. Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Pennsylvania are the other states, according to public interest law firms that have advocated on behalf of these inmates.

Other states may have no long-term juvenile convicts like Montgomery or have given them new prison sentences or have allowed parole hearings.

The decision handed down on Jan. 25, 2016, does not expressly foreclose judges from sentencing teenagers to a lifetime in prison. In the 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. However, when the Miller decision was announced, it did not necessarily apply retroactively to Montgomery and other inmates like him.

In the Miller v. Alabama decision, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, said the judges weighing prison terms for young offenders must take into account “the mitigating qualities of youth,” among them immaturity and the failure to understand fully the consequences of their actions.

While in prison, Montgomery became a boxing coach and worked in the prison’s silkscreen department. Those activities were a sign of his maturity after many years of incarceration.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. dissented in the Miller decision in 2012 barring sentences for young killers, but he joined the majority in the Montgomery case. These two cases are a line of Supreme Court cases that have limited states in the way they punish juveniles.

In 2005, Justice Kennedy wrote the decision that outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. The Supreme Court has barred sentences of life without parole for people convicted of crimes other than murder that were committed before the person reached the age of 18.

The Montgomery case is another prime example of the outrageous state laws that imprison juveniles or try them as adults, sentencing them to life without parole or the death penalty in many cases. This is a systemic criminal justice problem that recently has drawn momentum for change. There are many advocate groups that have for decades tried desperately to change state laws on how juveniles are criminally prosecuted.

In the Montgomery case it was noted that the State Times of Baton Rouge ran a front-page headline after Montgomery’s arrest: “Negro Held in Deputy’s Murder Here.” The story noted that “more than 60 Negroes were detained” in a parish-wide manhunt.

The Louisiana Supreme Court threw out Montgomery’s first conviction because he did not get a fair trial, but he was later convicted in a second trial and sentenced to life.

Montgomery v. Louisiana, U.S. Supreme Court, 14-280.

Robert Kreisman of Kreisman Law Offices serves as the chair of the Administration of Justice Subcommittee of the Public Affairs Committee of the Union League Club of Chicago. Mr. Kreisman and his subcommittee, in coordination and sponsorship with other outside groups, has been advocating for reform of the Illinois criminal justice system and in particular, the Illinois juvenile justice system.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury cases, civil jury trials, commercial litigation, birth injury lawsuits and medical malpractice cases for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Flossmoor, Homewood, Rosemont, Naperville, Westchester, Hillside, Bellwood, Maywood, Forest Park, Melrose Park, Orland Park, Western Springs, Gurnee, Round Lake Beach, Park Ridge, Palatine, Oak Park, Kenilworth, Evergreen Park, Elk Grove Village and Des Plaines, Ill.

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