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

Henry Montgomery

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 juveniles sentenced to life without parole, granting him a new hearing less than a year after the board first denied his release from prison. 

Henry Montgomery, who is serving a life sentence for the 1963 killing of East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Deputy Charles Hurt, will again go before a three-person panel of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole after it accepted his request for reconsideration, the board's appeal-like process to reconsider previous decisions given certain circumstances, like a mistake, misconduct or new evidence. 

Montgomery's reconsideration hearing has been set for April 11.

Montgomery became parole eligible after the nation's highest court ruled in his favor that as a youthful offender — he was 17 when he killed Hurt— he should have an opportunity for an early release on his life sentence. That decision, Montgomery v. Louisiana, piggybacked on a string of Supreme Court rulings in recent years that have distinguished juveniles as inherently different from adults, with diminished culpability and an increased capacity for rehabilitation. The ruling mandated that even in prior cases, sentences of life without parole for youth must be reserved only in the most rare cases, beginning a nationwide reckoning of the more than 2,500 people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.

"Henry Montgomery has been in prison for over 55 years, longer than any other juvenile lifer in Louisiana," said Andrew Hundley, the executive director of the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit that represents juvenile lifers in their parole hearings and helps them readjust to free society. "We feel strongly that he is a deserving candidate for a second chance and would be a productive member of society, if given the opportunity."

In Louisiana, there were about 300 so-called juvenile lifers in prison, like Montgomery, amounting to the nation's third highest such population. Since the decision in 2016, about 35 juvenile lifers have been released on parole, according to the nonprofit Louisiana Parole Project, all having met certain parameters set out by state law, including having served at least 25 years and completed educational and rehabilitative classes, and having received a unanimous vote from the parole board. 

Montgomery, however, has remained in the minority of such cases that have come up for a parole hearing, denied his shot at freedom by the parole board last February, with two of the three board members voting no. The two members cited the small number of classes Montgomery had completed during his decades at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. 

Typically, prisoners have to wait two years after a denial to apply for a new parole hearing, but a decision reconsideration can be granted if an offender alleges, and the board substantiates, misconduct by a board member, a procedural error or significant new evidence that was not previously available, according to the parole board's policy on reconsideration.  While Montgomery's lawyer, Keith Nordyke, filed their initial motion for reconsideration under seal, he said their argument focused on how the board misapplied the law relative to juvenile lifers when deciding Montgomery's case. A seasoned parole board attorney, Nordyke said he only files for reconsideration if he believes a major mistake had been made. 

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"It's a big deal," Nordyke said of the board's decision to grant Montgomery a new hearing, but noted that he does not believe the decision has any larger implications for other juvenile lifers' cases.

"I really believe that all these cases are taken one-on-one, on their merit," Nordyke said.  

Francis Abbott, the executive director of the Louisiana Board on Pardons and Parole, said the Montgomery reconsideration decision was made by looking at board policy, but Abbott declined to answer specific questions about the decision. The board policy, updated in 2017, outlines specific considerations for parole committee members when hearing the case of a youthful offender, saying that members "shall give great weight to the fact that youth are less responsible than adults for their actions."

Abbott denied a public records request for the motion for reconsideration as well as the response from the board on the motion, citing a state law that affords certain confidentiality to offenders. 

“The gravity of this case is not taken lightly by the board or our staff here," Abbott said in an interview. "A lot of review and discussions and research went into the granting of this reconsideration. … It’s a unique case because he falls under the parole consideration for youthful offenders.”

On Nov. 13, 1963, Montgomery 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.

Hurt's grandson, Lafourche Parish Sheriff's Capt. J.P. deGravelles, said the news about the new hearing was a shock and disappointment to him and his family. His mother, Hurt's daughter, spoke at Montgomery's last parole hearing, asking that parole not be granted.  

“My mom’s had to live through this, how many times now?” deGravelles said Monday. "When she went, it took a lot out of her. … Nobody's too happy about it." 

He said his family will also be at the hearing in April, asking again that Montgomery not be granted freedom. 

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.