Supreme Court’s Ruling That Juvenile Sentences of Life Without Parole are Unconstitutional can be Applied Retroactively, Opening the Possibility of Release for Numerous Adults Who Received Mandatory Life Without Parole Sentences as Juveniles

In 1963, just two weeks after his 17th birthday, Henry Montgomery killed Charles Hunt, a Louisiana deputy sheriff.  Montgomery was originally sentenced to die but, on retrial in 1970, received a mandatory sentence of life without parole.  Montgomery is now 69 years of age and, by all accounts, became a model member of the prison community over the last 46 years.

In 2012, a divided United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that the Eighth Amendment forbids mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers.  Montgomery, who received such a sentence, sought release from prison based upon, among other things, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller.  However, the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to apply Miller retroactively and, in 2014, denied Montgomery’s petition.  In fact, Louisiana was one of several states that refused to apply Miller retroactively.  As a result, juveniles in these states whose cases were no longer subject to direct review could not challenge their mandatory life without parole sentences, notwithstanding the holding in Miller.  Montgomery’s attorneys subsequently sought review in the US Supreme Court.

The Court heard oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana on October 13, 2015, and issued its decision on January 25, 2016.  The majority opinion addressed two issues.  First, the Court discussed whether its prior ruling in Miller was a substantive rule of law which should be applied retroactively.  The Court also considered whether the rule could be applied in a case like Montgomery’s which was on collateral, as opposed to direct, review.

In an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has become a voice for juvenile defendants, the Court recalled its prior juvenile justice decisions (Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller), all of which noted that juveniles differ constitutionally from adults in terms of their level of culpability because they have yet to fully mature intellectually and emotionally, and therefore do not have the same level of judgment.  Further, Miller made mandatory life without parole sentences unconstitutional for “a class of defendants because of their status”, and created a substantive rule of constitutional law that could be applied retroactively in cases on collateral review.  Kennedy also noted that states could remedy a violation of Miller by releasing juvenile offenders on parole, and that such release would not impose undue burdens on the states or disturb the finality of state court convictions.  Finally, release on parole supervision would allow defendants like Montgomery “the opportunity to demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition – that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”  In light of the foregoing, the Court reversed the Louisiana Supreme Court’s denial of Montgomery’s application, and remanded his case for consideration of parole.

As noted above, Montgomery is the latest in a line of cases that holds that juvenile defendants – even those who commit the most severe crimes – must be viewed and punished differently than adults charged with the same offense(s).  As the Supreme Court’s decisions in this area note, there is a growing body of persuasive research to support this approach.  Unfortunately, juvenile justice is frequently viewed as something of a stepchild in the larger criminal justice system. All too often, appearances in juvenile court involve appearing before judges who view their current judicial assignment as “time in the hole”, or who wonder what they did to deserve a demotion.  It can also involve working with prosecutors who believe hey have been marginalized by their office, and are just itching to get assigned to an adult (read “real”) court.  All of these people are missing the point.   Any juvenile proceeding is important because the defendant is still young enough to change, and the Supreme Court’s continue to make this point forcefully.  A number of the judges and lawyers in the trenches pay lip service to this concept; however, after handling many juvenile cases, I really wonder if they believe it.  There has been considerable talk lately on both the state and federal levels about criminal justice reform.  Hopefully, the “reformers” will view Montgomery as, among other things, a reminder that both the adult and juvenile sides of the criminal justice system require their attention.

Finally, Montgomery opens the possibility of parole release for a number of adult inmates all over the country who received mandatory life without parole sentences as juveniles.  Because of our firm’s continuing interest in juvenile justice, we will be monitoring these cases to the extent possible to see how the various state courts and parole authorities address these matters.

Attorney James S. Friedman, Esq., represents juveniles defendants in the state courts in New Jersey and New York City.  If you know a juvenile who has a petition in juvenile court, contact the firm immediately to discuss the case.


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