Juveniles convicted of murder as adults can get chance at parole, U.S. Supreme Court rules in Baton Rouge case

Henry Montgomery

Members of Louisiana's parole board voted Thursday to postpone Henry Montgomery's first shot at freedom in more than 50 years after his first-degree murder conviction in the 1963 shooting of an East Baton Rouge Sheriff's deputy.

Montgomery, a Baton Rouge man, became eligible for parole after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor that as a juvenile offender — he was 17 when he killed deputy Charles Hurt — he should have an opportunity to make the case for an early release on his life sentence. Earlier this year, a state judge decided that the case could be heard by the parole board, which scheduled a hearing.

But on Thursday, during a brief hearing, members of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole said one statutory question about how many members should sit on the panel remains before they can consider his case.  

The three-member panel said they plan to formally request an opinion from the state's attorney general to clarify how to proceed with Montgomery's parole hearing due to two conflicting Louisiana statutes — one that's been on the books for years that lays out how hearings for offenders convicted of crimes of violence against law enforcement officers should be conducted and the other, which was enacted earlier this year, that details how such hearings should be conducted for juvenile offenders currently serving life sentences. Montgomery's case seems to apply to both statutes as he was a juvenile convicted in an act of violence against an officer. 

The board said they hope to receive an answer and move forward with the decision about Montgomery's release within 60 days, but did not set a future hearing date. 

The Louisiana law dictating rules for parole says that when granting parole for inmates who are convicted of offenses against law enforcement officers, "at least five of the seven members of the committee are present." The law about parole eligibility of juvenile offenders, which was amended through Act 277 earlier this year in response to the Supreme Court's rulings on juvenile sentencing, says the parole board "shall meet in a three-person panel." The latter act was part of the state Legislature's comprehensive criminal justice reform package aimed at addressing Louisiana's infamous spot at the top of worldwide rankings for incarceration rate. 

Montgomery was convicted of first-degree murder at two trials in the 1963 shooting.

Hurt's daughter and grandson attended the parole hearing Thursday morning, where Becky Wilson said she was prepared to give a statement. After traveling into Baton Rouge for the parole decision, Wilson and her son said they were surprised when the parole board continued the hearing for a later date, but declined to comment further.

Montgomery and his lawyer Keith Nordyke were video-conferenced into the parole hearing at the Department of Public Safety and Corrections headquarters from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Montgomery only said his name and Department of Corrections identification number during the short hearing. Nordyke said they were also completely unaware that the parole board would push back their decision, a move he called disappointing. 

"My opinion is without question that Act 277 governs this situation and it is a three-person panel," Nordyke said. "Act 277 was written about a case about Henry Montgomery, it was very clear that there'd been a law enforcement officer involved in the case. Knowing that, the Legislature said it shall be a three-member panel. I don't know how it can be any other interpretation."

Despite the short-term setback, Nordyke said he and Montgomery will come back with the same, solid reentry plan for Montgomery, which "will only improve."

However, he said he is concerned about the attorney general's new role in this matter, as that office had argued against Montgomery when his case went to the Supreme Court and in state court. 

"I don't understand how they can render an opinion when they are an adversary," Nordyke said. However, he did say the attorney general is the appropriate lawyer for the parole board. 

The Attorney General's Office declined to comment and said they have not yet received the opinion request.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery's case in January 2016 that their 2012 decision about juvenile offenders, which found life sentences without parole for juvenile murder defendants unconstitutional because of teenagers' limited maturity and brain development, should be applied retroactively, allowing a reconsideration of sentences in cases that have been closed for decades. 

In June, a Baton Rouge judge re-sentenced Montgomery to life with the chance of parole in a hearing where Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola officials described Montgomery as a model inmate. The Supreme Court's decisions said only in the rarest cases, where teenagers display "irretrievable depravity," should juveniles defendants be sentenced to life without parole.

On Nov. 13, 1963, Montgomery was walking near Scotlandville High School when he ran from Hurt and other deputies who'd arrived to investigate a theft complaint called in by the school. Hurt tried to detain Montgomery, according to trial transcripts, and Montgomery was convicted of killing him with a single shot from a .22-caliber pistol. Hurt's partner that day wrote in an initial report that Hurt had his hands up and was backing away when Montgomery shot him. But the officer testified at trial that he was some 350 yards away and couldn't see Hurt or Montgomery at the moment of the shooting, according to recent filings by Montgomery's attorneys.

The deputy was wearing plain clothes, Montgomery's attorneys wrote, and the teenager told investigators following his arrest that he thought Hurt was reaching for a gun when he fired. "This was a terrible, split-second decision made by a scared 17-year-old boy who thought he was going to be killed."

Jill Pasquarella, a supervising attorney with the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, said the delay was "disappointing."  

 "Henry's been waiting for this for 54 years. I hope he — like the hundreds of other juvenile lifers — gets his shot to go before a parole board soon," she said.

Louisiana's prosecutors move to deny parole eligibility for about 1/3 of prisoners convicted of murder while teens

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.