La. delays parole hearing for 71-year-old man who killed deputy as a teen
A half-century later and nearly two years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor, the inmate is still waiting for his first chance at freedom
By Michael Kunzelman
BATON ROUGE, La. — In 1963, Henry Montgomery killed a sheriff’s deputy less than two weeks after his 17th birthday. A half-century later and nearly two years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor, he’s still waiting for his first chance at freedom.
Louisiana’s parole board postponed Thursday’s scheduled hearing for the 71-year-old inmate, whose case enabled roughly 2,000 other inmates to argue for their release after receiving mandatory life-without-parole sentences as juveniles.
The delay surprised Montgomery’s legal team and relatives of Charles Hurt, the slain East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy. Becky Wilson, one of Hurt’s three children, said she had driven from Arkansas to Baton Rouge on Wednesday to speak at the hearing. Wilson and her son declined to comment on the board’s move.
Jim Wise, vice chairman of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole, said a legal opinion from Louisiana’s attorney general is needed to resolve an apparent conflict between two laws governing parole hearings: One says a three-member panel must decide parole for juvenile offenders, while another says anyone convicted of a violent crime against a law enforcement officer must face a panel of at least five members.
Wise said he hopes to reschedule the hearing for within 60 days. Montgomery, meanwhile, remains at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where he appeared with his lawyer by video link.
A spokesman for the Louisiana Parole Project, which represents Montgomery, said the delay was a “complete surprise.”
“It was kind of an ambush this morning,” added Kerry Myers, a former Angola inmate now working for the nonprofit organization.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2012 that mandatory sentencing of juvenile homicide offenders to life without possibility of parole is unconstitutional “cruel and unusual” punishment. In January 2016, the justices made their decision retroactive, deciding in Montgomery v. Louisiana to extend its ban on such sentences to people already in prison.
The decision ushered in a wave of new sentences and the release of inmates from Michigan to Pennsylvania, Arkansas and beyond. But other former teen offenders are still waiting for a chance at resentencing in states and counties that have been slow to address the court ruling, an Associated Press investigation found.
In Michigan, for example, prosecutors are seeking new no-parole sentences for nearly two-thirds of 363 juvenile lifers. Those cases are on hold until the Michigan Supreme Court, which heard arguments in October, determines whether judges or juries should decide the fate of those inmates.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said 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.”
A state judge who resentenced Montgomery to life with the possibility of parole said in June that he’s a “model prisoner” who appears to be rehabilitated.
Keith Nordyke, Montgomery’s attorney for the parole board proceedings, said his client has completed a 100-hour “pre-release course” and received other services to help with his transition if he is released from prison. But he said freedom wouldn’t come easy for Montgomery after decades behind bars.
“I call it ‘Rip Van Winkle syndrome.’ The world has passed him by in many respects,” he said. “We’re talking about somebody who has never held a cellphone in his hands. He’s never experienced a computer.”
Montgomery initially was sentenced to death after a jury convicted him of fatally shooting Hurt. After the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled he didn’t get a fair trial and threw out his murder conviction in 1966, Montgomery was retried, found “guilty without capital punishment” and automatically sentenced to life without parole.
A new Louisiana law makes juvenile lifers eligible for release after 25 years in prison — unless a prosecutor intervenes. The state’s district attorneys have asked judges to deny parole eligibility to 84 of the 255 inmates covered by the law, or about one in three cases, according to the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, an advocacy group.
A few Louisiana prosecutors are seeking to deny parole eligibility in most of their cases. Some district attorneys report case numbers that vary from the group’s tally, but not enough to make a significant difference in the statewide percentage it cites.
Montgomery’s lawyers said he has strived to be a positive role model for other prisoners, serving as a coach and trainer for a boxing team he helped form inside prison.
Hurt was married and had three children. Jean Paul deGravelles, a grandson of the slain deputy, had said he planned to address the parole board and oppose Montgomery’s release. In an interview before the hearing, deGravelles said Montgomery, at 17, was old enough to know right from wrong when he shot Hurt, who was looking for truants when he crossed paths with the school-skipping teenager.
“This man went to trial twice, both times found guilty,” said deGravelles, a captain at the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office. “What’s so different now than when he killed (Hurt) 50 years ago? The situation hasn’t changed.”