Becky Wilson forgave Henry Montgomery years ago for the 1963 murder of her father, East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy Charles H. Hurt, but that doesn’t mean she wants him to go free.
Montgomery, 17 years old when Hurt was gunned down in a Scotlandville field, has been locked up since the day after the killing. Next fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments to decide whether Montgomery, now 68, should have a chance to leave prison. The justices will weigh whether their June 2012 decision banning automatic life terms for juveniles convicted of murder should apply to older cases.
For Wilson, who lost her father when she was 9, the answer is clear.
“Unfortunately, our sentence has no way of being overturned or commuted. We live with this forever,” Wilson, 60, said from Hope, Arkansas. “My mother served a life sentence without her husband; my brother, sister and I have served a life sentence without our father; my children, nieces and nephews have served a sentence of never knowing their grandfather.”
Montgomery was convicted and sentenced to death in 1964, then retried in 1969 and convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“I don’t feel vindictive toward the man. I feel like he got two fair trials,” Wilson said. “I’m not upset the death sentence was overturned.”
Montgomery, who escaped for just a few hours with seven others from the East Baton Rouge Parish jail in 1966, has been denied release four times — in 1971, 1995, 1999 and 2001, she added.
“They had more than enough time to consider his background,” Wilson said.
In its 2012 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said by a 5-4 vote that states can no longer automatically sentence juveniles convicted of murder to life in prison without parole without first holding a sentencing hearing to consider the defendant’s youth, upbringing, circumstances of the crime and other factors.
The court found that “youth matters for purposes of meting out the law’s most serious punishments.” In an opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, the court said that children simply don’t have the same mental capacity as adults, so they should be treated differently. The decision noted “children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change.”
The ruling, in a case called Miller v. Alabama, did not ban juvenile life sentences altogether; the high court only outlawed the automatic imposition of the sentence. Judges must consider each defendant’s case individually, taking into consideration the child’s home life and ability to be rehabilitated.
The high court, however, did not say whether the decision applied retroactively to inmates across the country serving life terms for killings they committed when they were under 18.
Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde said Tuesday that as of April 2013, there were 332 offenders in state custody who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles for various crimes, including first- and second-degree murder and aggravated rape. The bulk of them were sentenced before the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Courts in various states have split on whether the Miller ruling should be retroactive.
Supreme courts in Louisiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Michigan have ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision should not be applied to cases prior to the decision. Intermediate appeals courts in Florida and Michigan have ruled the same way.
The Louisiana high court, in a 5-2 decision in November 2013, concluded that federal law only makes a new ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court apply retroactively when there is a “substantive” issue decided, such as the banning of a kind of punishment entirely or a crime deemed unconstitutional. An example would be the 2005 abolition of the death penalty for juvenile offenders.
The state Supreme Court found that the Miller decision was a procedural one, so it does not apply to past cases.
The Louisiana case centered around Darryl Tate, who was 17 when he robbed a man of 40 cents and shot him in the chest.
Tate pleaded guilty in Orleans Parish in 1981 to second-degree murder and was sentenced, automatically under state law, to spend the rest of his life in prison without hope for parole.
In the Montgomery case, the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office — which is handling the arguments for the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office — emphasizes that the Miller decision does not bar life sentences without the possibility of parole. Instead, it replaced an automatic mandate with the requirement to hold a hearing.
Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Laura Gerdes Colligan said the fact that Montgomery killed Hurt is not in dispute.
“The Court did not grant review in this case because of anything wrong with the underlying murder conviction, but instead to resolve an important legal question,” she said. “The Attorney General’s Office and the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office will vigorously defend the murder conviction and sentence in this case, which has been final for 45 years.”
Mark Plaisance, who will argue at the U.S. Supreme Court on Montgomery’s behalf for the East Baton Rouge Parish Public Defenders Office, said he will make the argument that what the high court did in June 2012 represented a substantive change in the law.
“Since it’s a substantive change it should apply to everyone in that class,” he said.
The highest courts in Iowa, Mississippi and most recently Florida, as well as midlevel courts in Illinois and New Hampshire, have decided that Miller v. Alabama does apply retroactively, and the U.S. Department of Justice has agreed.
Federal circuit courts have also divided on the issue, with some tossing out previously imposed life sentences and others upholding them.
The U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately have to settle the confusion.
In direct response to the high court’s 2012 ruling, the Louisiana Legislature approved a measure during the 2013 regular session requiring a sentencing judge to hold a hearing to determine whether the sentence should be imposed with or without parole eligibility. If a sentence is imposed with eligibility for parole, the legislation gives incarcerated offenders a shot at freedom after serving 35 years for first- or second-degree murder, according to the legislation that the governor signed into law.
The Louisiana Supreme Court concluded in its 2013 decision that state lawmakers never intended the law to be read to apply to those already sentenced.
In a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Jeff Hughes, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote, “Fundamental fairness in the administration of justice requires that these new laws apply to Darryl Tate, and all defendants who are similarly situated in Louisiana.”
The U.S. Supreme Court had agreed last fall to decide about retroactivity in the New Orleans case of George Toca, which was to be heard at the high court later this month. But Toca was released from prison earlier this year under a plea deal in which he agreed to drop his innocence claim in exchange for pleading guilty to two counts of armed robbery and manslaughter. His sentence was equal to the time he had served.
Toca, who was barely 17 at the time of a fatal 1984 stickup, spent 31 years in prison.
In legal filings in that case about the retroactivity issue, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office argued it would be nonsensical to ask local judges decades after a crime was committed to evaluate a juvenile’s capacity to change.
Advocates for juvenile lifers countered that judges could instead look at an inmate’s record while behind bars.
Charles Hurt was 41 and living in Baker when he was fatally shot by Montgomery, a black Scotlandville High School 10th-grade student who was described at the time as answering to the nickname “Wolf Man.” Montgomery told authorities he “panicked” and shot Hurt on Nov. 13, 1963, with a stolen .22-caliber pistol after the white officer confronted him playing hooky in a wooded field near the Anna T. Jordan Recreation Center in Scotlandville.
A news article in The Morning Advocate printed the day after the killing described Hurt as the first law enforcement officer in East Baton Rouge Parish shot to death in three decades. The authorities implemented roadblocks and rounded up and jailed more than 60 black men during the manhunt. The article described the men as being “booked for investigation.”
Defense witnesses at Montgomery’s trials characterized him as being quiet, withdrawn and a habitual thief. He was described as having subnormal intelligence. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Wilson said her father was a gentle man who had a great rapport and reputation with both white and black people.
She said her family received a condolence letter from President John F. Kennedy after her father was killed. Kennedy was fatally shot a week later in Dallas.