A Baton Rouge judge Wednesday gave a 71-year-old man convicted of killing a sheriff's deputy when he was 17 a chance to leave prison before he dies.
Henry Montgomery has been locked up for 54 years in the killing of East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputy Charles Hurt. But Judge Richard Anderson on Wednesday re-sentenced Montgomery to a life sentence with the possibility of parole, following a pair of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings — including Montgomery's own case — that say defendants convicted of murder for killings committed as juveniles cannot automatically be sent away to serve life without parole.
"This is not an easy thing for me to do … because one man is dead and the family is still living through the consequences. But the law is the law," said Anderson, referencing the higher court decisions that said sentences of life without parole for young killers must be "rare and uncommon" and reserved only for those who display "irretrievable depravity."
Anderson's decision during the brief hearing came nearly two months after defense attorneys presented the judge with extensive testimony about Montgomery's conduct in prison and the rough circumstances of his childhood. Officials from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where Montgomery has spent nearly all of the last half-century, described him as a trustworthy inmate and reliable worker who accumulated a remarkably low number of infractions during his time at the once-notorious prison.
Lindsay Jarrell Blouin, an East Baton Rouge Parish public defender who represents Montgomery, also detailed rough circumstances of Montgomery's childhood, which she wrote included neglect, physical abuse and a lack of education. Court filings also detailed Montgomery's mental limitations, including an IQ estimated by psychologists during his 1969 trial as somewhere in the 70s.
At the age of 13, Montgomery was sent to the State Industrial School for Colored Youths for several years, a reform school that Blouin described as more akin to a segregated penitentiary for black children where Montgomery and other children suffered physical abuse.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery vs. Louisiana in 2016 (and in an earlier decision, Miller vs. Alabama, in 2012) that a teenager's limited maturity and brain development require courts to carefully consider a range of factors before imposing a sentence of life without parole, the harshest sentence allowed for juvenile defendants.
"He's been a model prisoner for 54 years, he's been a mentor and, by all appearances, he's been rehabilitated," Anderson said. "It does not appear (Montgomery) is someone the Supreme Court would consider 'irreparably corrupt.'"
Montgomery was walking near Scotlandville High School on Nov. 13, 1963, 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 killed 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."
Hurt's family did not attend Wednesday's hearing. But in April, as Anderson considered evidence in the case, Hurt's two daughters took the stand to testify to how that single gunshot upended their family, snapped previously happy childhoods and continues to reverberate in painful ways decades later.
Becky Wilson and Linda Woods both told Anderson through tears that they'd come to forgive and pray for Montgomery. The deputy's daughters met privately with Montgomery at Angola earlier this year.
But the sisters, as well as Jean-Paul deGravelles, Hurt's grandson who's now a Lafourche Parish sheriff's deputy, all said they felt Montgomery received a just sentence when a jury in 1969 found him guilty of murder "without capital punishment" — a verdict that spared Montgomery the death penalty but sent him away for the remainder of his life.
Anderson echoed that view, noting from the bench that he felt Montgomery's life-without-parole sentence was fair. But the law has changed, Anderson said, regardless of whether the judge agrees with the Supreme Court rulings.
Prosecutors didn't argue for either life with or without parole for Montgomery but noted the gravity of the crime and its impact on the victim's family.
Lawyers with the Attorney General's Office who represented the state at the hearing declined to comment Wednesday. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said Anderson's "difficult but well-reasoned decision" acknowledged the suffering caused by Montgomery but was bound by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.
Wilson, who was 9 years old when her father was killed, said Wednesday she believes Anderson reached "the only decision he could" under current law in offering Montgomery a chance at parole and said she appreciates the judge's careful consideration of the case.
"As for Mr. Montgomery, I just pray for God’s perfect will to be done in his life and hope and pray he is blessed wherever he might be, today and in his future," Wilson said by email. "If he should be paroled, I hope, if given the opportunity, he will use his life experience to help keep young men and women from going down the same path he went down. Also, I pray that he will truly be thankful and humbled by the gift of freedom."
Montgomery's 1969 conviction came after the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned an earlier verdict, ruling that widespread and often racially tinged attention to the case "permeated the atmosphere" in Baton Rouge during his first trial. The court ruled that "no one could reasonably say that the verdict and the sentence were lawfully obtained."
Anderson on Wednesday noted the jury in Montgomery's second trial in 1969 chose not to impose a death sentence even though the law allowed it. Montgomery's attorneys argued earlier that the jury's decision for a lesser sentence suggested they didn't see Montgomery as among the worst killers.
Anderson also admonished Montgomery, who stood before the judge stooped with his hands closely shackled to a belly chain, to take advantage of his opportunity at freedom. Montgomery didn't speak during the hearing and was quickly led away after the judge read out his new sentence.
Blouin, his attorney, said after the hearing that Montgomery was pleased with the decision but "still grieves for the victim's family and the impact this has had on them."
The next step for Montgomery will be a request for a parole board hearing. He's already served more than twice as many years as required before parole consideration and has met other requirements to apply for release. Keith Nordyke, an attorney with the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit firm representing Montgomery in the parole process, said a hearing could come before the end of the year.
Debra Ephraim, a cousin of Montgomery who attended Wednesday's hearing, broke down in tears outside the courtroom as her cousin's attorneys explained the implications of the ruling.
Ephraim said she was roughly 11 years old when Montgomery went to prison and has "only a little girl's memory of him" from the years before his arrest in Hurt's killing. Those memories mostly came from summers spent at their grandparents' farm north of Baton Rouge.
"He was like a big brother in the family," said Ephraim, who's visited her cousin for decades in prison. "I remember him playing with the horses, teaching me to ride, explaining the different animals."
Montgomery's parents and other immediate relatives have all died since he was sentenced to prison. If he's released, Ephraim said, "I plan on getting the entire family together and introducing him to everyone."