Cases expected to clog Louisiana courts, and cost millions, after state fails to address unconstitutional life sentences _lowres

Henry Montgomery

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 whose case was central in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that juvenile offenders be given a chance at release. 

A three-member panel of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole voted 2-1 to deny parole to Montgomery, who is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder in the 1963 shooting of an East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's deputy.

"In 54 years of incarceration, all you've taken were two classes," Kenneth Loftin said to Montgomery, before voting against parole. "You're only doing exactly what you can to get by."

Loftin and board Chairman James Kuhn, who also voted to deny parole, primarily cited that lack of classes in their explanations on why Montgomery, who was 17 at the time he fatally shot deputy Charles Hurt, should stay in prison. The parole board had to vote unanimously to grant Montgomery freedom. 

However, Montgomery's lawyer, Keith Nordyke, said only looking at such classes is short-sighted and unfair.

For Montgomery's first 30 years of incarceration, classes were not available to inmates serving a life sentence, Nordyke said. Once they were an option, Montgomery was deemed incapable of completing his GED, so he instead focused on job training, Nordyke said. He worked at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola's silk-screen shop for 20 years — where he won employee of the month eight times. The two courses he did complete were required by state law to become eligible for parole, classes Nordyke said Montgomery had to complete as an older man, on top of working a full day. 

"He pretty much did all he could do. ... But that's not good enough," Nordyke said after the hearing. 

Nordyke said Montgomery founded the prison's Amateur Boxing Association, stayed involved with church and had a limited disciplinary record. Montgomery even participated in Alcoholics Anonymous despite never having any issues with substance abuse, because "it was, at one point, the only self-help group," his lawyer said.

But the decision brought relief to Linda Hurt Wood, one of Hurt's daughters.

"It's a victory for my father," Wood said, calling the shooting "senseless." Montgomery was walking near Scotlandville High School on Nov. 13, 1963, playing hooky, when he encountered 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 family opposed Montgomery's release Monday morning, joined by the Baton Rouge police, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office and the statewide associations for sheriff's offices and police departments. 

Wood and her sister Becky Hurt Wilson both said they visited Montgomery in prison and forgave him, but they do not believe he deserves to be free. Their father's death, which prompted years of turmoil for their family, is not reversible, Wood said. 

"I want you do give him the same consideration he gave my father and my family," Wood said to the parole board. "He needs to stay (in prison)."

Montgomery became eligible for parole after the nation's highest court ruled in his favor that as a juvenile offender, he should have an opportunity to make the case for release on his life sentence. A state judge later granted a new sentence for Montgomery, giving him a chance to go before the parole board. 

But Kuhn said having the opportunity for release is very different than being released. 

"This is a parole hearing, it's not a sentencing hearing," Kuhn said. "This board has extraordinary discretion."

Through a live video feed connecting Angola to the state corrections department headquarters in Baton Rouge, Loftin questioned Montgomery on details of the fatal shooting from 1963.

Montgomery struggled to hear questions from the board through the feed, often needing his lawyer to repeat them. Nordyke also asked to help Montgomery answer some of the questions because he said his client was very nervous. 

"Everything happened so fast; I wasn't intending to kill nobody," Montgomery said of the incident. "I'm sorry for all the pain." 

Loftin specifically asked Montgomery if Hurt had been retreating with his arms up when he fired at the deputy. That account was included in a statement that Hurt's partner made in the initial police report but later rescinded during trial, saying he was actually some 350 yards away and couldn't see Hurt or Montgomery at the moment of the shooting, according to court filings by Montgomery's attorneys.

Montgomery told the board Hurt did not have his hands up at the time of the shooting and said the plain-clothed deputy had been reaching for a gun.  

"I was scared," Montgomery said.

However, Kuhn said the board had to use the documented facts in the case, which included that initial police report, not the newspaper articles that described the testimony that Nordyke referenced in the hearing. 

Andrew Hundley, the executive director of the Louisiana Parole Project and a former juvenile offender sentenced to life without parole, testified on behalf of Montgomery's release. Hundley said Montgomery had been a mentor to him and many others while in prison. 

"I didn't know the Henry Montgomery at 17 who committed this crime, but I know the Henry Montgomery today," Hundley said. 

Hundley testified that the Louisiana Parole Project had prepared a re-entry plan for Montgomery that included housing, employment and any other necessary support.

Parole board member Alvin Roche Jr. was the lone vote in favor of Montgomery's release. He cited Montgomery's negative score on his risk assessment, problem-free mental health evaluation and short disciplinary record. 

"In my opinion, Henry Montgomery will become a productive member of society, if allowed a second chance," Roche said. 

Montgomery can apply to again go before the parole board after waiting two years, Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick said.

Nordyke said he plans to file for another parole hearing for Montgomery when possible. 

"He's disappointed, but he rolls with the punches," Nordyke said of Montgomery.

The 2016 Supreme Court decision in Montgomery's case piggybacked off recent rulings that life in prison should be a rare sentence for young people who commit murder, with a majority of justices finding that "children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change." Justices told states they needed to reconsider sentences in cases that have been closed for decades, affecting about 250 such cases in Louisiana. 

"Prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the decision

The court's most recent rulings find that teenagers are "constitutionally different from adults," emphasizing both their ability to change and the science that shows their brains are less developed, making them less culpable.

Advocates for juvenile offenders said the parole board's decision about Montgomery went against the spirit of the high court's rulings. 

"Mr. Montgomery has a long track record of positively contributing to the Angola community and taking steps toward self-improvement, all signs of rehabilitation that the Supreme Court cited in his case," said Jill Pasquarella, the supervising attorney for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. "His denial today begs the question of whether the principles behind the Supreme Court rulings are truly understood and upheld by stakeholders across the system."

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.