Henry Montgomery's victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 created a way for hundreds of prisoners like him — those convicted of horrific crimes while juveniles — to earn their freedom by demonstrating their rehabilitation since their youth.
Yet on Thursday, Montgomery was again denied his own opportunity at a life beyond bars.
The Louisiana Committee on Parole denied Montgomery his freedom for the second time in 14 months, a decision that will keep the 72-year-old confined at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where he has served 55 years.
At age 17, Montgomery killed East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Deputy Charles Hurt in 1963 and was sentenced to life in prison. But three years ago, the case played the central role in a landmark ruling on juvenile sentences, Montgomery v. Louisiana, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled youth offenders cannot be sentenced to mandatory life without parole, even in prior cases.
And though one of the parole board members Thursday morning cited the court's decision directly, noting "children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change" — it was not enough. The board must vote unanimously for parole to be granted, and one member, Brennan Kelsey, voted against Montgomery's parole.
The Louisiana parole board in April will rehear the case of the 72-year-old Baton Rouge man central to the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision on…
Kelsey said he believes the septuagenarian still needs to take more classes and complete more programming.
"It's your responsibility to continue to work," Kelsey told Montgomery through a video call between Baton Rouge and the Angola prison.
But Montgomery's attorney, Keith Nordyke, responded that he's "not sure what programs are left."
"He's been through all of the programs he could take," Nordyke said. "He's been a force for change and a force for good."
Nordyke told the board that Montgomery was imprisoned before programming was available to those sentenced to life terms, but even then, Montgomery started a boxing club that gave young inmates a positive outlet. The lawyer said Montgomery was involved in a Methodist church ministry and organized a literacy program for fellow inmates that included helping them write letters home when they could not read or write themselves. Since programming became available to Montgomery in recent years, he has completed a variety of classes, like anger management and victim awareness.
"We're not quitting, we're not giving up," Nordyke said, calling the decision Thursday disappointing. He said he's unsure what his legal team will do next, but he worries about waiting two more years to again go before the parole board, which is the typical waiting period after a decision. Montgomery will turn 73 in June.
"I'm not sure, when you're 73, that two years from now is an adequate remedy for something the Supreme Court ordered," Nordyke said.
Less than 36 hours after his release from prison, Steve Perkins sat in front of a class of law students, giving them advice.
At the hearing Thursday morning, Nordyke helped relay questions and information from the parole committee to Montgomery because of Montgomery's impaired hearing. The prison's warden at one point tried to adjust Montgomery's hearing aid to help him better follow the proceedings, which were broadcast on a video feed to the prison about an hour north of Baton Rouge.
"It is incredibly disappointing that Mr. Montgomery was denied parole yet again," Jill Pasquarella, a supervising attorney for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, said in a statement. "The Supreme Court ruling bearing his name recognized that children can transform as they age, and Mr. Montgomery certainly has. … His denial today begs the question of whether the Supreme Court’s mandate is truly understood and upheld by stakeholders across the system."
The board reconsidered Montgomery's case on Thursday because they conceded an error had occurred during his previous hearing, at which he was first denied freedom.
The Louisiana parole board on Monday denied freedom to 71-year-old Henry Montgomery, a Baton Rouge man convicted of killing a sheriff's deputy…
At that hearing in February 2018, two of the three parole committee members voted to deny Montgomery parole, primarily citing Montgomery's lack of classes as reasoning for their vote. But Nordyke requested the board reconsider the case through the board's appeal-like process, alleging the voting members misapplied the laws on youthful offenders in their decision. His request was granted.
The three parole board members on Thursday were different from the three who voted on Montgomery's case last year, yet Kelsey echoed a similar request about more classes, a claim Nordyke called unfair. He said prison officials worked in the last year to find Montgomery additional classes to take after the last hearing, but it was still not enough.
"I do feel like the goalposts are moving," Nordyke said. He said there are classes on parenting and substance abuse that Montgomery has not taken, but those courses would not make sense for a 73-year-old man without children who has never struggled with substance abuse.
Montgomery was sentenced to life without parole for the 1963 killing of Hurt, and was re-sentenced to life with the opportunity for parole after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 made a earlier similar decision on juvenile sentencing retroactive. The justices found mandatory life without parole sentences for youth offenders unconstitutional, including in prior cases, and mandated that the harsh sentence should be reserved only for the rare teen whose crime shows "irreparable corruption."
That ruling forced a reckoning across the country of hundreds already-litigated cases involving juvenile perpetrators — including in Louisiana, which had almost 300 such cases, the third-highest number of any state.
Since the Supreme Court in early 2016 once again ruled that Louisiana was — and had been for decades — unconstitutionally sentencing juveniles…
Hundreds of juvenile lifers around the U.S. and dozens in Louisiana have since been granted parole. In Louisiana, these prisoners must meet certain parameters outlined by state lawmakers, including serving at least 25 years in prison and completing certain educational and rehabilitative classes, and none have since re-offended. All juvenile lifers in Louisiana had been convicted of murder and were 17 or younger at the time of the crime.
Andrew Hundley was the first juvenile lifer released in Louisiana and is now the executive director of the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit that was set to assist Montgomery upon his release. "He has been a mentor to many people like myself, especially juvenile lifers," Hundley said.
Hundley testified the Louisiana Parole Project and its reentry partners would have supported Montgomery in his return to free society and for the remainder of his free life, including providing him housing and employment.
The warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Darryl Vannoy, testified to the board that Montgomery has no issues at the prison. During Montgomery's 55-year incarceration, prison officials said, he has been written up for breaking rules only 23 times, and only twice in the last 17 years. The last two write-ups, in 2013 and 2014, were for smoking in an unauthorized area and leaving clothes on his locker.
"He's worked at the same job for 25 years," Vannoy said. Montgomery works at the prison's silk-screen shop. "He's not a problem for us. Real low-key guy, you don't hear anything out of him."
On Nov. 13, 1963, Montgomery, then 17, was walking near Scotlandville High School, when he ran from Hurt and other deputies who had come to investigate a theft complaint. During the encounter, Montgomery shot and killed Hurt, 41.
After spending a half-century serving life without parole for a murder committed as a teenager, Henry Montgomery is now preparing for a parole…
"I know I committed the crime," Montgomery said Thursday. "I am sorry all this happened. … I'm just sorry."
Hurt's grandson, Lafourche Parish Sheriff's Capt. J.P. deGravelles, said while Montgomery has apologized to his family, that was the first time he heard Montgomery take responsibility for the crime. However, he and his aunt, Linda Hurt Wood, asked the parole board on Thursday to keep Montgomery behind bars.
"I did go to Angola and I do forgive Henry Montgomery," Wood said. "Mr. Montgomery received a life sentence and so did we. … I will never have my father back."
DeGravelles said their family was disappointed to learn Montgomery would get a second chance in front of the parole board, less than two years from the last hearing. Typically, prisoners have to wait two years before requesting another parole consideration, but the timeline was expedited when the board granted Montgomery's reconsideration appeal — a process about which deGravelles said his family was kept in the dark, yet he was glad to see how it ended up.
"Nobody comes out ahead on this," deGravelles said. "Mr. Montgomery is where he needs to be, and that's where he needs to stay."
Reiterating the belief that “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that a 69-yea…