The Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday sent the case of a 70-year-old inmate serving life without parole for the 1963 murder of an East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy back to district court for re-sentencing, five months after the U.S. Supreme Court declared that inmates convicted of murders committed as teens deserve a chance at release.
Tuesday’s ruling also lays out guidelines for how to handle the case of Henry Montgomery, who’s spent more than 50 years in prison for killing Deputy Charles H. Hurt, and those roughly 300 other inmates serving unconstitutional sentences and entitled to re-sentencing under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Montgomery’s case had largely been on hold since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor in January as the court waited to see if state lawmakers would address the unconstitutional sentences. But a bill that would’ve offered inmates a shot at parole after serving at least 30 years died amid hasty negotiations and bitter wrangling during the last few minutes of the legislative session earlier this month.
But just what a state district judge must consider before deciding whether Montgomery deserves a chance a parole remains a matter of some dispute.
Tuesday’s state Supreme Court decision “at least gives us some direction as district attorneys and courts about how we shall proceed forward,” said East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions but we’re in a better position now. We were really lost without a road map.”
Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, a term of life without parole should be given only to juveniles who show “such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible.”
If district attorneys again seek life without parole for any of the roughly 300 inmates currently serving unconstitutional sentences, the defendant would be entitled to a sentencing hearing where evidence about an offender’s mental health, schooling, home life and prison record could be considered.
But just how expansive such a hearing should be is under debate.
When an Ascension Parish jury found 17-year-old Jeffrey Lively guilty of second-degree murde…
Public defenders and youth advocates have said such hearings should be akin to the sentencing phase in a death penalty trial, requiring a number of experts and extensive research.
An initial analysis of the decision prepared by prosecutors in Moore’s office suggests sentencing hearings could in fact be much narrower in scope and that a “capital-style sentencing hearing is not required.”
Moore, the Baton Rouge prosecutor, said district attorneys from across the state planned to discuss the decision at a conference later this week.
Not all of those serving unconstitutional sentences will end up back before a district judge for a full re-sentencing hearing, which isn’t necessary if prosecutors agree not to seek life without parole.
Reiterating the belief that “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change,”…
District attorneys in some cases have already struck agreements with inmates to provide an opportunity to petition the state Parole Board for release. And those on both sides of the cases have said litigating all of the roughly 300 cases could cost millions of dollars and gum up court dockets for years.
But cutting a deal or agreeing to allow inmates the chance at release could be a fraught decision for prosecutors, given the pain felt by victims’ families and the high profile of some of the crimes.
Mark Plaisance, a public defender who’s representing Montgomery, said his initial reading of the state Supreme Court decision left unsettled several issues he’d raised in earlier filings, including whether inmates like Montgomery would be eligible for parole under the conditions set out in a 2013 state law, which allows juveniles sentenced to life with parole to be released after serving at least 35 years. The state Supreme Court in an earlier decision ruled that law applies only to new cases.
“That’s still an open question,” Plaisance said. “I’m not sure it (Tuesday’s decision) clears up as much as it still leaves questions in need of answers.”
The state Supreme Court’s decision provides numerous suggestions about what factors judges may weigh before issuing new sentences.
Anticipating further appeals, the state Supreme Court directed district judges Tuesday to clearly specify reasons for denying or allowing parole eligibility.
The court also noted several times that the decision came only after the Legislature took no action, adding that “the legislature is free ... to enact further laws governing these re-sentencing hearings.”
No new bills will be coming, though, until lawmakers reconvene for the 2017 legislative session.
“I think the Legislature is going to step in,” said Moore. “Unfortunately, it’s going to be a year.”