Since 1963, Henry Montgomery (now sixty-nine years old) has been in a Louisiana prison, serving a mandatory sentence of life without parole for the murder of Charles Hurt, a deputy sheriff in East Baton Rouge. A newspaper article published shortly after Hurt’s death suggested that Montgomery, who had turned seventeen just a few weeks before the murder, panicked and shot the sheriff after Hurt caught him playing hooky from school. Tomorrow the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments to determine whether Montgomery – whose lawyers portray him as a model prisoner – will definitely remain in prison for the rest of his life, or will instead be guaranteed by the Constitution an opportunity to ask for a sentence under which he could be eligible for parole.
The trial of Montgomery, who is African American, played out amid the racial tensions of the Deep South in the 1960s. Hurt, who was white, was the first police officer killed in the city in decades; local police responded by setting up roadblocks and jailing more than sixty African-American men as part of their investigation. Montgomery was originally sentenced to death, but his conviction was overturned on appeal. At a new trial in 1969, Montgomery was again convicted, but this time he was sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without parole instead.
Over forty years later, a divided Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that requiring life sentences without the possibility of parole for teenagers who have been convicted of murder violates the Constitution. Writing for the five-Justice majority, Justice Elena Kagan explained that defendants who are under eighteen when they commit murder require a different approach to sentencing because they are both less responsible for their actions than adults and more likely to turn their lives around. A “one size fits all” approach that mandates a life sentence, without the possibility of parole, for every juvenile who is convicted of murder does not allow the judge or jury to take the defendant’s age and special characteristics into account; as a result, it is contrary to the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Court held.
After the Court issued its decision in Miller, Montgomery went back to court. He asked for a new sentencing hearing, which would include the possibility of parole. But the state courts turned him down, on the ground that the Miller ruling did not apply retroactively to cases, like his, that had already been finally decided in the courts. Because other lower courts had reached different results on this issue, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to weigh in.
When the Supreme Court announces a new constitutional rule governing proceedings in criminal cases, that rule normally only applies to cases that are not yet final – that is, cases in which appeals are still ongoing. There are, however, two narrow exceptions to this general rule. First, a new rule can apply retroactively to cases that were already final if it is a “substantive” rule that takes away either the government’s power to impose a particular punishment or its power to punish specific conduct at all. Second, even if it is not a substantive rule, the new rule can still apply retroactively if it is a “watershed” rule that goes to the “fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding.”
Montgomery argues that he should be allowed to take advantage of the Court’s decision in Miller because the rule it created qualifies as both “substantive” and a “watershed” rule of criminal procedure. The Court’s decision in Miller, he contends, took away the option of mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles. And that, he says, required a change in the sentencing options available to the jury before any other procedural rules governing sentencing apply. But even if the rule announced in Miller is instead “procedural,” he continues, it is a “watershed” rule from which he should be allowed to benefit: because they preclude a jury or judge from considering each offender’s unique circumstances when deciding on a sentence, mandatory sentences of life without parole create an “impermissibly large risk” of erroneously imposing a punishment that is too harsh for offenders under eighteen – especially when the Court in Miller suggested that life-without-parole sentences will be “uncommon” for such offenders. And Montgomery downplays concerns that requiring courts to revisit mandatory sentences like his will undermine the state’s interest in having its courts issue sentences that become final: unlike determinations of guilt or innocence, he asserts, sentencing hearings are by their very nature “forward-looking” and include factors like a defendant’s characteristics and whether he can be rehabilitated and returned to society.
Louisiana counters that Montgomery cannot avail himself of Miller’s bar on mandatory life-without-parole sentences because it is merely a run-of-the-mill procedural rule – neither substantive nor a “watershed” rule. Even if a new hearing were held, it emphasizes, Montgomery could still receive the same sentence of life without parole today; the only difference, it reasons, would be that the judge or jury would have to “follow a certain process” – taking Montgomery’s individual circumstances and characteristics into account, rather than mechanically imposing a sentence – before it could do so. And, the state adds, mandating a new sentencing hearing would create its own set of logistical and practical problems: notwithstanding that “virtually everyone involved in Montgomery’s 1969 trial is dead,” the judge or jury would have to determine “whether Montgomery’s youth should have impacted the sentence he received for a crime he committed a half-century ago.”
The state’s case is aided by a “friend of the court” brief filed by Becky Wilson – Sheriff Hurt’s daughter, who was nine when her father was killed. Wilson (along with the family members of other victims of inmates who committed murder as juveniles) tells the Court that requiring new sentencing hearings in cases like Montgomery’s will take a significant emotional toll on the victims’ families, who will be traumatized all over again by having to relive the events that led to the victims’ deaths.
Despite the high stakes in this case, there is a chance that in the end the Justices won’t reach the question whether Montgomery can benefit from the Miller ruling at all. When they agreed to take on Montgomery’s case, the Court also asked both sides to brief a separate, highly technical question: whether it has the authority to review the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling at all. Both Montgomery and the state agree with it does, so the Court asked Richard Bernstein, a Washington attorney and former clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia, to argue that it does not; Bernstein will have fifteen minutes tomorrow to do so.
A ruling in Montgomery’s favor could reverberate far beyond his case, affecting more than two hundred other inmates in Louisiana and more than two thousand nationwide. But Montgomery and those other inmates would not be automatically set free: the Court’s ruling would mean only that they could ask for a new sentencing hearing to determine whether they should be released on parole. But the sharp division among the Justices on the issue that gave rise to this case – its 2012 ruling that states cannot require mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder – suggests that Tuesday’s oral argument could be a spirited one. I’ll be back on Tuesday afternoon to cover it in Plain English.