NEW ORLEANS – In recent years, hundreds of people once destined to spend the rest of their lives in prison after being convicted of crimes as juveniles have gone free after Supreme Court decisions ruling that young people are capable of change and should be given a second chance.
But so far the man whose case has been central to this change — 75-year-old Henry Montgomery — is still behind bars nearly six decades after his 1963 arrest. That may change Wednesday when a Louisiana parole board votes for the third time whether to grant Montgomery parole.
“The state has gotten about fifty-eight years of Henry Montgomery’s life. He doesn’t have much left. What’s the value in making him spend a couple more years there? I, for one, cannot see it,” said Andrew Hundley who runs the Louisiana Parole Project that will provide a home and support for Montgomery should he be released.
Montgomery was arrested after fatally shooting Charles Hurt, an East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy, who caught him skipping school. Montgomery was 17 at the time. He was initially sentenced to death but the state's Supreme Court threw out his conviction in 1966, saying he didn't get a fair trial. The case was retried, Montgomery convicted again but this time sentenced to life in prison.
When Montgomery went to prison, and for decades afterward, the “lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” attitude dominated law enforcement and society — especially in Louisiana where the incarceration rate has consistently been the highest in the country. Juvenile offenders, often portrayed as irredeemable “super-predators,” were no exception.
But recent Supreme Court rulings have begun to chip away at these lifetime juvenile sentences as the country has begun to rethink “tough-on-crime” approaches.
In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the court ruled that mandatory sentencing of life without parole for juvenile offenders was “cruel and unusual” punishment. The court’s decision was based on the idea that children’s minds and impulse controls are still developing, and they often act recklessly. The court found that juveniles are capable of growth and change and, except in the most severe cases, should be given the opportunity to get out of prison.
In 2016, the Supreme Court took up Montgomery’s case and made their earlier decision retroactive, giving hundreds of juvenile lifers a shot at freedom.
Since the court's Montgomery decision, about 800 people who had been sentenced to life without parole as juveniles have been released, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. About 656 people are serving life without parole for crimes they committed as children — down from 2,800 about five years ago — the organization said.
Advocates also point to the sweeping changes that have happened in the near-decade since Miller was decided. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have completely banned the use of life without parole for juveniles offenders — compared to five states in 2012. In another six states, the sentence still exists but no juveniles are serving life without parole.
In Louisiana, about 96 out of roughly 300 former juvenile lifers incarcerated at the time of the Montgomery decision have been freed, according to data compiled by the Parole Project and the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, which represents kids going through the justice system. But Louisiana has not done away with the life without parole sentence for juveniles, and advocates at the LCCR say just as many children are being sentenced to life without parole in the years after the Supreme Court's pivotal 2012 ruling as after it — usually children of color.
When Montgomery started serving his time at Angola it was a violent place, where attacks on inmates and guards were commonplace. There was little in the way of rehabilitative programs, especially not for prisoners who were never expected to experience freedom again.
Some of the programs like the boxing club were ones that Montgomery himself helped start, say supporters. He's worked for years at the prison's silk screen shop where one of his lawyers during the last parole board hearing said he'd been named employee of the month more times that she could count.
During the last year the coronavirus has limited Montgomery's contact with the outside world, his lawyer Keith Nordyke said. The elderly Montgomery is extremely hard of hearing, making Zoom calls difficult, Nordyke said. In previous parole hearings Montgomery has struggled to understand what is being said.
Hurt, the sheriff's deputy who Montgomery killed, was married and had three children. Two of his daughters have met with Montgomery in prison and forgiven him, but family members have opposed his release. Hurt's grandson J.P. deGravelles, who is also in law enforcement, said the family is not acting out of vindictiveness and if Montgomery is granted parole, deGravelles wishes him well. But his grandfather will never get such an opportunity at life again.
“This is not a witch hunt for us. We just we think he was given a sentence, and he was given a just sentence and he should carry it out," deGravelles said. “The killing of a police officer is a direct assault on the very fabric of society."
Should Montgomery be granted parole, he'll become a client of the Louisiana Parole Project. The organization — started in 2016 by Hundley who is a former juvenile lifer himself — helps offenders who've served long sentences reenter society. They'd provide Montgomery with a place to stay and help him with important steps to reentering society such as getting an ID card, signing up for health insurance, learning how to use a cellphone or computer and making sure he has his medications.
Hundley worries if Montgomery doesn't get paroled this time, he could die in prison. In 2019, the three member board voted 2-1 in favor of letting him out, but the decision had to be unanimous. This time, a simple majority would suffice. Hundley has asked Montgomery what he would like to do if he is released.
“He wants to be able to look at sunrise without looking at it through razor wire. That is what he is looking forward to. That’s what he thinks about," Hundley said.
This story was originally published November 16, 2021. It has been corrected to show that 25 — not 24 states — and the District of Columbia have now banned the use of life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders.