Oral Argument in Montgomery v. Alabama on Tuesday, October 13
The U.S. Supreme Court will hold oral argument Tuesday to review a case involving a mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentence given to a 17-year-old who murdered a police officer 52 years ago. At issue in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, is whether the Court's 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits an automatic LWOP sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, can be applied retroactively to older cases.
The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has filed argument in this case to encourage a Supreme Court decision which says, "no."
On November 13, 1963, 41-year-old East Baton Rouge Parish Deputy Sheriff Charles Hurt was fatally shot in a wooded field in Scotlandville, Louisiana, by Henry Montgomery, a 17-year-old high school student who went by the nickname "Wolf Man." Gunned down with a .22 caliber pistol stolen by Montgomery, Hurt became the first law enforcement officer shot to death in the parish in three decades. Montgomery was identified as the shooter, apprehended the next day, and charged with murder. His crime left Hurt s wife without a husband and his three young children without a father.
At his trial in 1964, Montgomery was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. The Louisiana Supreme Court later found that his trial was compromised by adverse publicity, due to high local passion at the time. After a retrial in 1969, the second jury spared him from a death sentence, deciding instead that he receive LWOP.
Decades later, in 2012, in a 5-4 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court announced that the Constitution prohibits states from automatically sentencing juveniles convicted of murder to LWOP. The ruling announced that, before a juvenile murderer can receive LWOP, the sentencing court must consider the defendant's youth, upbringing, and circumstances of the crime, among other relevant factors which may support the option of a lesser sentence. The ruling did not ban life without parole sentences for juveniles altogether. What the court did not specify, however, is whether the decision can be applied retroactively to inmates across the country sentenced years ago for crimes they committed as juveniles.
The following year, the Louisiana Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision, concluded that federal law, as prescribed by the ruling handed down in Teague v. Lane (won by CJLF in 1989), requires that a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling apply retroactively only when a "substantive" issue has been decided, such as deeming a crime unconstitutional, or when a specific type of punishment is eliminated entirely, such as the 2005 abolition of the death penalty for juvenile murderers. Ultimately, the Louisiana high court ruled that the decision in Miller was procedural in nature and, thus, not retroactively applicable.
In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, the Foundation argues that the trial court's denial of Montgomery's motion following the Miller ruling properly applied the precedent set in Teague, prohibiting retroactive application in the absence of special circumstances. CJLF also argues that Montgomery's claim that he "had no opportunity to present any evidence—and certainly no evidence regarding his age and relevant attributes—in mitigation of his sentence" is unfounded, as his youth would have been obvious to a jury. The jury in the second trial, in fact, spared him from the death penalty, indicating that such mitigating factors were considered. The Foundation notes that Montgomery received a just sentence for his crime, having had "life and the opportunity to find meaning in it," something that Deputy Hurt did not.
"The murder of Charles Hurt was final; the sentence for his murderer should be final as well," said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.
CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.