Henry Montgomery, the key to the debate on life sentences for young people, gets parole: NPR

In this February 1964 photo, Henry Montgomery, flanked by two deputies, awaits sentencing in his trial for the assassination of Deputy Sheriff Charles H. Hurt in Louisiana. On Wednesday, a parole board in Louisiana Montgomery granted parole after spending 57 years in prison.

John Boss / The Advocate via AP


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John Boss / The Advocate via AP

NEW ORLEANS – A parole board in Louisiana granted parole on Wednesday to Henry Montgomery, whose Supreme Court case helped extend the liberty to hundreds of people who were sentenced to life in prison without probation when they were young.

Montgomery, 75, was convicted of the 1963 murder of East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Hurt, who took him in skipping school. Montgomery was 17 at the time. He was originally sentenced to death, but the state Supreme Court overturned his verdict in 1966, saying he did not get a fair trial. The case was reopened, Montgomery sentenced again, but this time sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He served for decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

A three-member board voted unanimously for parole. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the meeting was held at Zoom, where Montgomery appeared on camera at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where he has spent his entire adult life.

“He has been in prison for 57 years. He has an excellent … disciplinary record. He is a low risk in our assessment. He has received good comments from the warden. He has a very good prison history,” said board member Tony Marabella da he voted to approve Montgomery’s release with certain conditions, including a curfew, and that he has no contact with the victim’s family.

Montgomery’s case paved the way for the release of other young offenders

Montgomery’s release is due to two specific Supreme Court cases. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Miller v. Alabama ruled that mandatory life imprisonment without probation for juvenile offenders was a “cruel and unusual” punishment. But that did not settle the question of whether that decision applied retroactively or only to future cases.

In 2016, the Supreme Court decided the case when it took up Montgomery’s case and extended their decision on such convictions to persons already in prison.

The decision ushered in a wave of new convictions and the release of inmates from Michigan to Pennsylvania, Arkansas and beyond. But until Wednesday, Montgomery remained in jail.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, he was sentenced in 2017 to life in prison on parole, and the state judge who outraged Montgomery called him a “model prisoner” who appears to be rehabilitated. But then the parole board rejected his application twice, the most recent rejection coming in 2019.

Montgomery will be released for the Louisiana Parole Project. The nonprofit was founded in 2016 by Andrew Hundley, a former juvenile delinquent, to help people who have served long prison sentences – generally 20 years or more – re-enter society. The organization helps former inmates with housing, enrollment in health care or medicine, get an ID card, and learn how to navigate the community.

Hundley spoke during the hearing, in which a number of the former life-sentenced youths who have reviewed his program sat in a room behind him. When the unanimous decision was announced, they could be seen clapping at the news.

During the hearing, Hundley and others spoke about what Montgomery had accomplished in prison, including his many years of work in the prison’s screen printing shop and the duration of his stay.

“There’s nothing left for him to achieve at the Louisiana State Penitentiary,” Hundley said. “It’s time for Henry to come home.”

Some remain against his release

His release was not without resistance. 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. A prosecutor from the area where Montgomery’s crime took place spoke out against his parole, as did one of the deputy’s daughters, Linda Hurt Woods.

“I do not believe he should be released at this time,” Woods said, adding that the decision shows deep disrespect for law enforcement. “He made a decision as a 17-year-old. You know right and wrong as a 17-year-old. I did.”

Montgomery even said a little during the about half-hour hearing. According to his lawyer Keith Nordyke, he is extremely hard of hearing, and Nordyke often had to repeat questions from the board members. At times, Montgomery said he struggled to find words to express himself.

“I’m really sorry that I did this happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ll have to live with this my whole life, the rest of my life.”

Since the court’s Montgomery ruling, about 800 people who had been sentenced to life without probation as juveniles have been released, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

“The decision to grant Mr. Montgomery probation today is long awaited,” Jody Kent Lavy, the organization’s co-executive director, said in a statement. “It is a serious injustice that he has served over 57 years in prison for a crime he committed as a teenager, despite evidence that he was rehabilitated a long time ago.”

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