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Inmate in landmark SCOTUS case denied parole

The Court's 2016 decision in the case opened the door for roughly 2K other juvenile offenders to argue for their release


By Michael Kunzelman
Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. — A 71-year-old Louisiana inmate whose case led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on juvenile-offender sentences was denied parole on Monday, more than a half-century after he killed a sheriff's deputy at age 17.

A three-member panel from the state parole board voted 2 to 1 to keep Henry Montgomery imprisoned. The hearing was his first chance at freedom since his conviction decades ago. He now must wait another two years before he can request parole again. A vote to free him would have had to be unanimous.

The Supreme Court's January 2016 decision in Montgomery's case opened the door for roughly 2,000 other juvenile offenders to argue for their release after receiving mandatory life-without-parole sentences.

Montgomery has served 54 years in prison for fatally shooting East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's deputy Charles Hurt in 1963, less than two weeks after Montgomery's 17th birthday. Last June, a state judge who resentenced Montgomery to life with the possibility of parole called him a "model prisoner" who appears to be rehabilitated.

But parole board member Kenneth Loftin said he was troubled by some of Montgomery's statements during the hearing and that he thinks Montgomery should have done more to access programs and services that could have benefited him in prison. He didn't elaborate on what statements bothered him.

Montgomery told the board he has asked for forgiveness from the deputy's family and from God.

"I'm sorry for all the pain and misery that I've caused everybody that's involved in this case," he said.

The board also heard from two daughters and a grandson of Hurt, all of whom opposed Montgomery's release. Hurt was married and had three children.

Linda Woods, his youngest daughter, said she and her sister met with Montgomery in prison last year and forgave him for what he did, "but I do believe that justice has been done and he needs to stay there."

Montgomery initially was sentenced to death after a jury convicted him. After the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled he didn't get a fair trial and threw out his murder conviction in 1966, he was retried, found "guilty without capital punishment" and automatically sentenced to life without parole.

In 2012, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juvenile homicide offenders to life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional "cruel and unusual" punishment. In January 2016, the justices made their decision retroactive, deciding in Montgomery v. Louisiana to extend its ban on such sentences to people already in prison.

In the court's majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy 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 decision ushered in a wave of new sentences and the release of dozens of inmates in states from Michigan to Pennsylvania, Arkansas and beyond.

Other former teen offenders still are waiting for a chance at resentencing in states and counties that have been slow to address the court ruling, an earlier Associated Press investigation found. In Michigan, for example, prosecutors are seeking new no-parole sentences for nearly two-thirds of 363 juvenile lifers. Those cases are on hold until the Michigan Supreme Court, which heard arguments in October, determines whether judges or juries should decide the fate of those inmates.

A new Louisiana law makes juvenile lifers eligible for release after 25 years in prison — unless a prosecutor intervenes. The state's district attorneys have asked judges to deny parole eligibility to 84 of the 255 inmates covered by the law, or about 1 in 3 cases, according to the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, an advocacy group.

Montgomery's lawyers said he has strived to be a positive role model for other prisoners, serving as a coach and trainer for a boxing team he helped form at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

During Monday's hearing, Loftin asked Montgomery if he remembered the shooting.

"Everything happened so fast, and I wasn't intending to kill nobody," Montgomery replied.

When Loftin asked him why he had a gun, he replied that the section of Baton Rouge where the shooting happened was a "hostile area" for him to be traveling in and he was scared.

Montgomery's parole hearing originally was scheduled for Dec. 14, but the board postponed it until Monday so it could resolve an apparent conflict between two state laws governing parole hearings. The more recent law says a three-member panel must decide parole for juvenile offenders, while another says anyone convicted of a violent crime against a law enforcement officer must face a panel of at least five members. Attorney General Jeff Landry's office's resolved the question with a legal opinion that said Montgomery's case must be decided by a three-member panel.

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