About 300 Louisiana inmates spending their lives in prison for murders committed as teens are turning to the courts after the Legislature failed to address their sentences, which were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in January.
A bill that would’ve given the inmates a shot at parole after serving at least 30 years died at the end of the regular Legislative session Monday amid eleventh-hour negotiations and an unrelated spat between the state House and Senate.
Each of the inmates will now need to petition district judges for new sentences individually, prosecutors and defense attorneys say. If district attorneys again seek sentences of life without parole, each defendant is entitled to a full-blown sentencing hearing, including expert testimony and evidence about their home lives, schooling and mindset at the time of the crimes, many of them decades in the past.
The court battles and hearings pose complex legal challenges that could drag on for years and cost an already strained legal system millions of dollars. With budgets stretched for many district attorneys and with local public defenders in many parishes turning away clients because of a lack of funding, many say the flood of cases couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“We’re looking at close to 300 extremely costly, extremely expensive and time-consuming hearings that have to happen to comply with the constitutional standard,” said Jill Pasquarella, special counsel to the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. “The public defender system is certainly not equipped to handle that many cases, and frankly neither are the district attorneys or the courts.”
“What you’re looking at is potentially hundreds of hearings,” said Jay Dixon, the state public defender, who likened the sentencing hearings to those conducted for death penalties. “That is going to be an extremely expensive proposition, which was why it was so urgent that something be settled in the matter.”
Among those fighting for a new sentence is 70-year-old Henry Montgomery, who’s serving life without parole for the 1963 murder of East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy Charles H. Hurt. Montgomery was 17 years old when he shot Hurt.
In a case brought by Montgomery against the state, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said such sentences should be reserved for “the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.”
The decision expanded a 2012 Supreme Court decision in an Alabama case that declared any future mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional. In the Montgomery case, the court said that ruling applies retroactively, offering teenagers convicted decades ago a chance — though no guarantee — of parole.
Even before the legislative session began, convicts serving newly unconstitutional sentences began filing a flurry of motions asking courts to reconsider their cases. Most of those cases, including Montgomery’s, remained on hold as lawmakers considered a sweeping fix that would address the sentences at once.
With any hope of such a solution dead until next year, attorneys and inmates are gearing up to argue the cases one by one in local district courts across the state.
“Without legislation, you’re looking at spending millions of dollars on cases, hiring extra people to handle nearly 300 cases,” said East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III. “We really needed some legislation to guide us.”
Very few of the convicted teenaged murderers have the money available to hire private attorneys, said Dixon, the state public defender, meaning nearly all will be turning to already cash-strapped public defender offices for representation during the potentially lengthy and expensive resentencing proceedings.
With potential witnesses long dead and years-old school and medical records destroyed, finding the evidence to present at a resentencing hearing will be a challenge.
“You have local districts that simply don’t have the tools, funding or assets to provide proper representation,” said Dixon, who anticipates litigation over just who will foot the bill for cases. “It’s going to be extremely expensive.”
“It’s like me inheriting 30 old murder cases that I’ll potentially have to re-litigate: Find witnesses that are dead, gone or moved; evidence that’s destroyed,” Moore, the Baton Rouge district attorney, said of the roughly 30 convicted murderers in his jurisdiction eligible for new sentences under the Supreme Court ruling. “It would be a daunting task to take on those 30 full-blown hearings.”
Not all cases will end up back in district court for full resentencing hearings, which aren’t required if prosecutors agree not to seek life without parole. Such deals have already been struck in some cases, said Pasquarella, the children’s rights advocate, and more could follow now that any kind of legislative solution is at least a year away.
Should a convict receive a shot at parole under a new sentence, defense attorneys said, it’s not clear how long they’d have to serve before petitioning the parole board for release — though whether they’d be granted parole is another matter entirely.
Without a law on the books outlining the exact conditions for parole, inmates may be able to petition for a parole hearing as soon as they receive a new sentence, said Mark Plaisance, a public defender who’s representing Montgomery.
“In light of nothing passing, I think the courts are going to have to start handling these cases,” said Plaisance, who’s also the Lafourche Parish public defender. “What it does for him (Montgomery) and everyone else is open the door to argue for all kinds of stuff.”
A bill sponsored by state Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, and supported by district attorneys would have allowed inmates serving such sentences to petition for parole. The bill gained bipartisan support, but it hit a snag when Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, added an amendment that would have applied the provision to future defendants as well, effectively abolishing life without parole for all juveniles. Under current law, judges hold hearings after those 17 years old or younger are convicted of murder to determine whether a sentence of life without parole is appropriate.
The Louisiana District Attorneys Association opposed the move, leaving the two sides at loggerheads before a deal was struck around 4:30 p.m. Monday. The compromise, reached just 90 minutes before the end of the regular session, would’ve abolished life without parole for juveniles convicted of second-degree murder but allowed prosecutors to seek the sentence for those convicted of first-degree murder.
The compromise bill didn’t reach the floor until minutes before the session was set to expire, though, with tensions running high over the failure of the state’s construction budget. Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, apparently angry over the handling of the construction budget by members of the House, effectively blocked a vote. She did not return a call seeking comment.
Both Martiny and Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, blamed each other for the delays in striking a compromise.
“The folks that wanted to abolish juvenile life came back and made some concessions,” Adams said. “We were willing to give a little but then it died for reasons that had little to do with our original bill.”
“I am disappointed, very disappointed,” Martiny said. “A lot of people worked very hard on it.”
Even if the Legislature had passed a bill, court battles may still have loomed over exactly how parole hearings should operate and over other parole conditions, such as a requirement that inmates acquire a GED before petitioning for release, said Plaisance, the attorney for Montgomery. In a motion filed March 23 before the state Supreme Court on behalf of Montgomery, Plaisance argued that his client hasn’t been able to enroll in prison training programs because spots in the classes are given first to inmates with pending release dates.
But such litigation will take a back seat, at least for the moment, as the courts attempt to sort out the hundreds of cases of those serving unconstitutional sentences.
If the Legislature doesn’t address the issue when it returns to regular session in 2017, Dixon and others said, the litigation could tie up court dockets and public resources for years.
“It’s going to cost millions of dollars and it’s going to be over a series of years — that’s a safe bet,” Dixon said. “I am disappointed that no legislation was passed and it’s placed everyone in a very tenuous position.”
Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.