Will Supreme Court Decision Be Death Knell for Life Without Parole?

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Tamar BirckheadIf I had to name a single U.S. Supreme Court case that effectively highlights the entrenched problems of the American criminal justice system, it would be Montgomery v. Louisiana: from the 1963 murder of Charles Hurt Jr., a white deputy sheriff in East Baton Rouge, to the conviction of Henry Montgomery, a developmentally disabled African-American teenager, to the ensuing half-century during which Montgomery has been warehoused at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

In other words, when Montgomery v. Louisiana is viewed through almost any critical lens, the deep fissures in our broken system are clearly apparent: the legacy of Jim Crow as reflected in the disproportionate representation of people of color in today’s courtrooms, jails, and prisons; the nation’s continued reliance on mass incarceration to solve intractable societal ills; and the refusal of many prosecutors, judges, and juries to consider criminal offenders — even those who are children or are intellectually compromised — as worth more than the worst thing they have ever done.

In November 1963, Deputy Hurt was shot and killed in a park in Scotlandville, a town in the segregated South that has since been annexed by Baton Rouge but which at the time was the largest majority African-American town in Louisiana.

At the time of his death, Deputy Hurt was on patrol, looking for kids who were truant from school. One of his daughters has described her late father as someone who “saw beyond race at a time when such vision was uncommon at best” and even initiated a “Junior Deputy” program for boys from Scotlandville.

Immediately after the shooting, there was a wide-ranging search for Hurt’s killer, with hundreds of deputies and police from neighboring parishes setting up roadblocks and making mass arrests in Scotlandville. Dozens, if not scores, of African-American men from 12 to 59 years old were arrested, held and questioned about the murder.

Among those arrested was Henry Montgomery, a mild-mannered 10th-grader with intellectual limitations who had turned 17 only two weeks earlier. Unfortunately nicknamed the Wolf Man due to his oversized teeth (an “alias” that was publicized prior to the trial), Henry lived with his grandparents, as his mother was autistic and had her own challenges.

Detectives brought Henry to his grandparents’ house, where he pointed out a .22 caliber pistol in the rafters and then accompanied them to the park where he re-enacted the crime. The detectives audiotaped Henry’s confession, during which he stated that he had left school to take a nap in the park and had run into Deputy Hurt behind the recreation center. When Hunt was patting him down, Henry panicked and shot him with the pistol he had placed in his jacket pocket.

In February 1964, a jury of 12 white men deliberated for a day and half before returning a guilty verdict and a death sentence for Henry Montgomery. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed his conviction two years later and ordered a new trial due to the trial court’s denial of both a motion to continue and a motion for a change in venue, which had been based on threats of cross burnings by the Ku Klux Klan before the trial and East Baton Rouge Parish’s adoption of a resolution proclaiming the first day of the trial to be “Charles Hurt Day.”

Five years later, although the mood of the community was calmer, it took another all white and male jury a mere 90 minutes to convict Henry of first degree murder, after which he was sentenced for an offense committed as a juvenile to mandatory life without parole (JLWOP) and sent to Angola.

[Related: Court Decision Brings Hope, Uncertainty for Juveniles Sentenced to Life]

Fast-forward 50 years. Henry Montgomery is 69 years old and the U.S. Supreme Court has held in a 6-3 vote, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and including Chief Justice John Roberts along with the liberal contingent of the court, that its June 25, 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama declaring that life without parole should be reserved for only the “rarest of children” whose crimes reflect “irreparable corruption” applies retroactively.

This means that Montgomery, along with the approximately 1,000 or more inmates whose sentences were imposed before Miller (in states that had subsequently found Miller not to apply retroactively or had not yet addressed the question), will now have an opportunity for release.

In fact, the court in Montgomery has gone a step further than many anticipated by suggesting that, rather than conduct resentencing hearings in which the parties must opine whether the inmate was “permanently incorrigible” at the time of the original sentence, states may instead consider whether the inmate should be considered for parole, i.e., release from prison under specified conditions.

The court even referenced (although it did not confirm) Henry Montgomery’s good behavior at Angola, including the fact that he established an inmate boxing team and served as a role model to other inmates, as “relevant” examples of “one kind of evidence that prisoners might use to demonstrate rehabilitation.”

The process by which the court decides that a decision is retroactive was established in its 1989 ruling in Teague v. Lane, which requires retroactive application when the court declares a new rule of “substantive” law but not one of “procedural” law.

With Montgomery, the court ruled that Miller’s prohibition of mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders was more than a procedural rule merely requiring the judge or jury to consider the defendant’s “youth” before the sentence. Instead, the court ruled that Miller more profoundly “rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty” for juveniles whose crimes “reflect the transient immaturity of youth,” and, thus, was the announcement of a new substantive rule.

In classic form, Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, contends not only that the court lacks jurisdiction to decide the case (meaning that the rule of Miller was procedural and not substantive), but that “the decision it arrives at is wrong.” He asserts that the court’s resolution of the jurisdictional issue is ends-oriented, driven by the majority’s desire to reach the merits rather than a commitment to follow precedent, which he calls “nothing short of astonishing.” He argues that rather than apply Miller to the facts at hand, the majority rewrites it: “This whole exercise, this whole distortion of Miller, is just a devious way of eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders.”

It remains to be seen whether Montgomery v. Louisiana will be the death knell for JLWOP. As it stands, judges maintain the discretion to conclude that particular juvenile offenders convicted of homicide are, in fact, intrinsically incapable of redemption and will never be fit to re-enter society. There may be resentencing hearings and reviews by parole boards, but there are no guarantees of release, as we have already seen in states that have found Miller to be retroactive.

Yet, it cannot be denied that Justice Kennedy has continued to chip away at what he considers to be “disproportionate” and thus unconstitutional punishment for juveniles: with Roper v. Simmons, it was the death penalty; with Graham v. Florida, it was JLWOP for nonhomicide offenses; and with Miller v. Alabama, it was mandatory JLWOP for homicides.

With Montgomery, the court’s most consistent swing voter has authored an opinion that leaves little room for the state to justify sentencing a juvenile to die in prison. As Justice Kennedy wrote over a decade ago in Roper, “When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.”

Tamar Birckhead is a criminal defense attorney, law professor and director of clinical programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.

More related articles:

Man Jailed 50 Years for Murder Is at Center of Supreme Court Hearing on Youth Life Sentences

OP-ED: California Bill Can End Solitary Confinement for Youth

2 thoughts on “Will Supreme Court Decision Be Death Knell for Life Without Parole?

  1. In 1993 in Georgia I was sentenced under the 7 years life sentence before being eligible for parole. Then in 1995 it went up to 14 years before parole. Then in 2006 it went up to 30 years before parole. But now the US SUPREME COURT said that for jlwop after doing 25 years bring them up for parole. So now my question is what will the states do that don’t have a parole system at all. Life means life. And the other question is what will states like Georgia do when a person with jlwop comes up for parole before someone that has life with parole?

  2. This is great…….. Long overdue…….. Yet the fight is far from over. Just as stated each states parole board may continually denied parole. Which in essence jlwop and jlwp will still be LIFE IN PRISON…… here in the state of Georgia an individual who is serving a LIFE sentence with the possibility for parole is denied parole sitting Ga statute- O.C.G.A. 42-9-42(c) release would not be compatible with the welfare of society due to the severe nature of the offense(s) for which you were convicted. This is being rubber stamped regardless of ones institutional record of good behavior and achievements. Regardless of entering the system as a juvenile ages 13-16 and has spent 20-30+ years incarcerated. Therefore eliminate LIFE sentences and set a determined amount of years to serve would be justice.