Opinions & Features November 19, 2021 at 04:00 pm

Arrested at 17, his case helped free hundreds of juvenile offenders but he wasn’t freed until now

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor November 19, 2021 at 04:00 pm

November 19, 2021 at 04:00 pm | Opinions & Features

Henry Montgomery was 17 when he was arrested for shooting a white police officer. After almost 60 years, he is free. Photos: AP

After spending nearly 60 years behind bars for the murder of a sheriff’s deputy as a juvenile, Henry Montgomery was granted parole on Wednesday. His recent Supreme Court case had allowed hundreds of juveniles sentenced to life without parole to be freed. But he had remained behind bars until now.

Montgomery, now 75, was convicted in the 1963 killing of East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy Charles Hurt, who caught him skipping school. Montgomery was 17 years old at the time. Authorities say that Montgomery was skipping school when he was approached by Hurt, who was in plain clothes.

Montgomery has said that as a Black teen living in the segregated South, he was “startled” and shot the deputy, NBC News reported. Montgomery was initially sentenced to death. However, his conviction was thrown out in 1966 by the state’s Supreme Court which said he didn’t get a fair trial.

When the case was retried, Montgomery was convicted again but this time he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to a report by the AP. He served decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the report added.

On Wednesday, a three-member board voted unanimously in favor of parole. The meeting was held on Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic. Montgomery appeared on camera at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola where he has been in prison for almost 60 years.

“He’s been in prison for 57 years. He has an excellent … disciplinary record. He is a low risk by our assessment. He’s got good comments from the warden. He has a very good prison record,” board member Tony Marabella said while voting to approve Montgomery’s release. The release however came with certain conditions including a curfew. Also, Montgomery should have no contact with the victim’s family.

Montgomery’s release follows two Supreme Court cases — one in 2012 and the other in 2016. In the 2012 case, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentencing of life without parole for juvenile offenders was “cruel and unusual” punishment, AP reported. The Supreme Court however did not state if that decision applied retroactively or only to cases going forward, AP added.

In 2016 when the Supreme Court heard Montgomery’s case, it made it known that the previous decision also applies to people already in prison. Following that ruling, hundreds of juvenile lifers were released. In fact, about 800 people who had been sentenced to life without parole as juveniles have been released thanks to the Supreme Court’s Montgomery decision, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Even though Montgomery’s case paved the way for the release of other juvenile offenders, he remained in prison. The AP reports that following the Supreme Court decision, he was resentenced in 2017 to life with parole. The state judge who resentenced him called him a “model prisoner”. However, the parole board rejected his application two times, with the most recent being in 2019.

Montgomery will now be in the care of the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit started in 2016 by Andrew Hundley, a former juvenile lifer, to help people who have served so many years in prison reenter society. The nonprofit will help Montgomery with housing, getting an ID card, signing up for health care, among others.

Hundley, former juvenile lifers and others are happy to have Montgomery back home. But some family members of Hurt, the sheriff’s deputy Montgomery killed, have been speaking against his parole.

“I do not believe that he should be released at this time,” Hurt’s daughter, Linda Hurt Woods, said. “He made a decision at 17 years old. You know right from wrong at 17. I did.”

Still, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth believes that the decision to grant Montgomery parole has been long overdue. “It’s a grave injustice that he has served over 57 years in prison for a crime he committed as a teenager, despite evidence he was rehabilitated long ago,” said Jody Kent Lavy, the organization’s co-executive director in a statement.

“Montgomery’s case has already impacted the lives of hundreds of people once told they would die behind bars for crimes they committed as children,” the statement added.

Montgomery has said that he is “really sorry” for what happened decades ago.

“I am going to have to live with this all my life, the rest of my life.”

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