Not Even the Supreme Court Can Get This 71-Year-Old Man Out of Prison

Two years ago, the justices said Henry Montgomery should be let out of prison. He’s still there.

Henry Montgomery at the time of his arrest in 1963 /Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, courtesy of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

In January 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that Henry Montgomery’s life prison sentence was unconstitutional and that he had the right to seek release from Louisiana’s most notorious prison, Angola. But two years later, the 71-year-old Montgomery is still there.

A Baton Rouge jury convicted Montgomery of murder and sentenced him to life in prison for shooting a deputy sheriff, Charles Hurt, in 1963, when he had just turned 17. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that such mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. Montgomery petitioned the court with the help of a jailhouse lawyer, asking it to apply the Miller decision retroactively to people who’d received such sentences before 2012. The court ruled in his favor.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that “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 has prompted many states to actively reduce the number of people sentenced to life as juveniles through criminal justice reform legislation and court resentencing hearings. When the court handed down its decision in 2016, 2,600 people nationally were serving life sentences without parole that were issued when they were minors. Today, that number has been cut in half.

Montgomery hasn’t been so lucky. Despite being housed in a famously brutal prison for half a century, he has been a model prisoner, the court noted. But the local prosecutor has fought his attempts at release, arguing that Montgomery should simply be resentenced to life without parole. Hurt’s children and grandchildren have also opposed Montgomery’s release.

This year, a state judge finally granted Montgomery the right to a parole hearing, which was scheduled to take place last month. But on the day of the hearing, the board voted to postpone it while the board and the state attorney general fight over how many board members need to be present to hear the case under a new state law. The board said it hoped to meet again in 60 days, but no hearing has been scheduled.

As Marsha Levick, the chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center who assisted with Montgomery’s Supreme Court case, pointed out to me this summer, Montgomery “is an old man.” Every day he sits in Angola makes it more likely that he’s going to die there, as nearly all Angola inmates do, despite having prevailed at the Supreme Court. “The idea that there is any value for anyone to be gained by keeping him in prison is to me completely unfathomable,” Levick said. “It’s just throwing money away to house him in an environment that he has more than earned the right to be let out of.”

Read more about Montgomery’s case here.