WASHINGTON — More than 1,000 prison inmates, some behind bars more than 50 years for murders they committed as teenagers, will get a chance to seek their freedom under a Supreme Court decision announced Monday.
The justices voted 6-3 to extend an earlier ruling from 2012 that struck down automatic life terms with no chance of parole for teenage killers. Now, even those who were convicted long ago must be considered for parole or given a new sentence.
The court ruled in favor of Henry Montgomery, who has been in prison more than 50 years for killing a sheriff’s deputy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1963. Montgomery was 17 years old and playing hooky from high school when he encountered Deputy Charles Hurt, who was on truant patrol. Montgomery pulled a gun from his pocket and shot Hurt dead in a panic, he said.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, said that “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.”
Kennedy said states do not have to go so far as to resentence people serving life terms. Instead, states can offer parole hearings, with no guarantee of release if inmates fail to show that they have been rehabilitated.
Louisiana is among seven states that had refused to apply the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling to about 1,200 inmates who may now qualify for parole hearings. Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Pennsylvania are the other states, according to public interest law firms that advocate on behalf of inmates.
Many states either have no inmates like Montgomery or have given them new prison sentences or parole hearings.
Monday’s decision does not expressly foreclose judges from sentencing teenagers to a lifetime in prison. But the Supreme Court has previously said such sentences should be rare, and only for the most heinous crimes.
In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the ruling “is just a devious way of eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders.” Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined Scalia’s dissent.
Four years ago, in a case called Miller v. Alabama, the justices struck down automatic life sentences with no chance of release for teenage killers. But the court did not say at the time if that ruling applied retroactively to Montgomery and other inmates like him, whose convictions are final.
In the 5-4 decision from 2012, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority that judges weighing prison terms for young offenders must take into account “the mitigating qualities of youth,” among them immaturity and the failure to understand fully the consequences of their actions.
Montgomery himself became a boxing coach and worked in the prison’s silkscreen department, which he pointed to as evidence of his maturation.
Chief Justice John Roberts dissented from the 2012 decision barring automatic life sentences for young killers, but he joined the majority on Monday along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan.
The outcome in Montgomery’s case is the latest in a line of Supreme Court decisions that have limited states in the way they punish juveniles. Kennedy also wrote the 2005 decision that outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. The justices also have barred life without parole sentences for people convicted of crimes other than murder that were committed before they turned 18.
The court often applies groundbreaking decisions in criminal law retroactively.
Montgomery’s case highlights some of the problems that inmate advocates say plague the criminal justice system generally. Montgomery is African-American, and he was tried for killing the white deputy in a time of racial tension and reported cross burnings in Baton Rouge.
The State Times newspaper of Baton Rouge ran a front-page headline after Montgomery’s arrest: “Negro Held in Deputy’s Murder Here.” The story noted that “more than 60 Negroes were detained” in a parish-wide manhunt.
The Louisiana Supreme Court threw out Montgomery’s first conviction because he did not get a fair trial. He was convicted and sentenced to life after a second trial.
The case is Montgomery v. Louisiana, 14-280.