BATON ROUGE, La. — A three-member panel must decide whether to grant parole to a prisoner who’s getting his first chance at freedom after nearly a half-century behind bars, Louisiana’s attorney general ruled Wednesday.
The legal opinion issued by Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office answers a question that delayed a parole hearing for Henry Montgomery, whose U.S. Supreme Court challenge enabled him and roughly 2,000 inmates to argue for their release.
The parole board abruptly delayed a hearing for Montgomery from Dec. 14 to Feb. 19 to resolve a conflict between two laws governing parole hearings. The more recent law 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.
“The latest expression of legislative will is considered controlling,” Landry’s office wrote in its four-page opinion.
Either way, the panel’s decision to grant parole would have to be unanimous, so a three-member panel seems to favor Montgomery.
Montgomery was 17 when he killed Charles Hurt, an East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy, in 1963. 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 in 1966, Montgomery was retried, found “guilty without capital punishment” and automatically sentenced to life without parole.
Two years ago, however, the nation’s highest court ruled in Montgomery’s favor. The decision also applied to roughly 2,000 other inmates who received mandatory life-without-parole sentences as juveniles.
The Supreme Court decided in 2012 that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional “cruel and unusual” punishment. The justices made their decision retroactive in Montgomery’s case, extending its ban on such sentences to people already in prison.
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.”
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.
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.