Matthew T. Mangino: A win at the High Court doesn’t always bring success
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The Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole recently denied parole to a 71-year-old man convicted of killing a sheriff’s deputy.
No big surprise — unless the 71-year-old man happens to be Henry Montgomery. Sixty-four years ago when Montgomery was a juvenile, he fatally shot East Baton Rouge sheriff deputy Charles Hurt. Montgomery was convicted and ultimately sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
So why was Montgomery even being considered for parole?
In 2012, in a case out of Alabama, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a “mandatory” sentence of life in prison without parole for a juvenile was unconstitutional.
There were about 2,000 inmates serving mandatory life without parole for killings committed as juveniles and in spite of the decision, few were being released.
Why? The Court didn’t provide any rules or guidelines for carrying out the decision.
Individual states were left to decide whether the Court’s decision applied to all juvenile life sentences — those to be imposed in the future and those having been imposed in the past. Simply, the High Court didn’t say whether the decision was retroactive.
In steps Henry Montgomery.
He was initially sentenced to death after a jury convicted him. After the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled he didn’t get a fair trial and threw out his murder conviction, Montgomery was retried, found “guilty without capital punishment” and automatically sentenced to life without parole, reported The Associated Press.
Although mandatory life-without-parole was outlawed as “cruel and unusual” punishment in 2012, it wasn’t until Montgomery v. Louisiana that the justices made their decision retroactive.
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.”
Montgomery got his chance, and it didn’t go well.
"In 54 years of incarceration, all you've taken were two classes," Board member Kenneth Loftin said to Montgomery, before voting against parole. "You're only doing exactly what you can to get by."
For Montgomery's first 30 years of incarceration, classes were not available to inmates serving a life sentence, reported The Advocate. He worked at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola's silk-screen shop for 20 years.
Although the Montgomery decision provided an opportunity for parole it did not guarantee it. Parole is discretionary in most states and a parole board is quite within its power to keep an offender in prison.
Henry Montgomery, who lent his name to the case that is being used to parole juvenile offenders across the country, is not getting out.
That’s not the only time a case named for a Defendant didn’t end up helping the Defendant so named. In 1996, Daryl Atkins killed a navy seaman Eric Nesbitt. Atkins had an IQ of only 59. He, like Montgomery, was convicted and initially sentenced to death. Atkins appealed. The issue of his mental disability made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002. The court, in a decision that bears the name Atkins v. Virginia, banned the execution of the mentally disabled.
Atkins’ case was sent back to Virginia to determine if he was mentally disabled. The guy whose case abolished the execution of the mentally disabled was subsequently determined not to be mentally disabled and placed back on death row.
His case was remanded a second time for resentencing and he was again sentenced to death. Atkins was later removed from death row for completely unrelated reasons and is now serving a life sentence.
The notoriety of winning before the High Court doesn’t always guarantee victory outside the hallowed halls of the U.S. Supreme Court.
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.