Inmate, 75, who spent nearly 60 years in jail for murder of Louisiana sheriff's deputy in 1963 is granted parole
A Louisiana board on Wednesday granted parole to Henry Montgomery, whose Supreme Court case was instrumental in making freedom possible for hundreds of people sentenced to life in prison without the chance for parole when they were juveniles.
Montgomery, 75, was convicted in the 1963 killing of East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputy Charles Hurt, who caught him skipping school and approached him in plain clothes.
Montgomery was 17 at the time.
He was initially sentenced to death, but the state's Supreme Court threw out his conviction in 1966, saying he didn't get a fair trial. The case was retried, Montgomery was convicted again but this time sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
He served decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
A three-member board voted unanimously in favor of parole. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the meeting was held on Zoom with Montgomery appearing on camera from the state prison where he has spent his entire adult life.
'He's been in prison for 57 years. He has an excellent...disciplinary record. He is low risk by our assessment. He's got good comments from the warden. He has a very good prison record,' said board member Tony Marabella as he voted to approve Montgomery's release with certain conditions including a curfew and that he have no contact with the victim's family.
Montgomery's release goes back to two specific Supreme Court cases. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole was 'cruel and unusual' punishment.
It didn't settle the question of whether that decision applied retroactively or only to cases going forward.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said at the time that the decision did not automatically grant parole, but opened up the option for a parole review.
In 2016, the Supreme Court took up Montgomery's case and extended its decision on such sentences to people already in prison.
The decision ushered in a wave of new sentences and the release of inmates in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and beyond. But, until Wednesday, Montgomery remained in prison.
After the Supreme Court decision, he was again denied parole, 54 years after he was imprisoned.
The parole board denied him parole because he only took two classes and the victim's family had asked for him not to be released, according to UPI.
'In 54 years of incarceration, all you've taken were two classes,' Louisiana Parole Board member Kenneth Loftin told Montgomery at the time. 'You're only doing exactly what you can to get by.'
He was later resentenced in 2017 to life with parole and the state judge who resentenced Montgomery called him a 'model prisoner' who appeared to be rehabilitated.
But then the parole board rejected his application two times, most recently in 2019.
It also was cited at his 2019 parole hearing that he attacked a police officer. Montgomery said he was in the 'segregated South' and was 'scared' when Hurt approached him.
'An attack on a police officer is an attack on the very fabric of society,' Hurt's grandson JP, who is now a police officer, told Dateline in 2019.
'There's no parole for Charles Hurt. His life sentence is permanent.'
JP also told Dateline that Montgomery's life in prison is 'equal justice' to Hurt's life being taken away.
However, Montgomery said he 'should be' granted parole in 2019.
'I should be,' he told Dateline's Lester Holt in 2019, 'At my age, I'm not the same guy. I'm 55 years older, you know, and I'm mature enough to know I ain't going to do that again.'
Montgomery will be released into the care of the Louisiana Parole Project, and will have a curfew and will not be allowed to contact the victim's family.
The Louisiana Parole Project was created in 2016 by Andrew Hundley, a former juvenile lifer, to assist people who have served long prison sentences - generally 20 years or more - reenter society.
The organization helps former inmates with housing, signing up for health care or medications, getting an ID card and learning how to navigate society.
Hundley spoke during the hearing, with a number of the former juveniles lifers who have gone through his program sitting in a room behind him. When the unanimous decision was announced they applauded.
During the hearing Hundley and others spoke of what Montgomery had accomplished in prison including his years of work at the prison's silk screen shop and the length of his stay.
'There is nothing left for him to accomplish at the Louisiana State Penitentiary,' Hundley said. 'It is time for Henry to come home.'
His release was not without opposition. Hurt, the sheriff's deputy who Montgomery killed, was married and had three children. Two of his daughters have met with Montgomery in prison and forgiven him, but family members have opposed his release.
A prosecutor from the area where Montgomery's crime occurred spoke against his parole as did one of the deputy's daughters, Linda Hurt Woods.
'I do not believe that he should be released at this time,' said Woods, saying that the decision shows deep disrespect to law enforcement officers. 'He made a decision at 17 years old. You know right from wrong at 17. I did.'
Montgomery himself said little during the roughly half-hour hearing. According to his lawyer Keith Nordyke, he is extremely hard of hearing, and Nordyke often had to repeat questions from the board members. At times Montgomery said he was struggling to find words to express himself.
'I'm really sorry that I, that this happened,' Montgomery said. 'I am going to have to live with this all my life, the rest of my life.'
Since the court's Montgomery decision, about 800 people who had been sentenced to life without parole as juveniles have been released, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
'The decision to grant Mr. Montgomery parole today is long overdue,' said Jody Kent Lavy, the organization's co-executive director in a statement. 'It's a grave injustice that he has served over 57 years in prison for a crime he committed as a teenager, despite evidence he was rehabilitated long ago.'