BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA. AP) — More than a half-century after a Louisiana teen was sent to prison for killing a sheriff's deputy, the now 71-year-old inmate is getting his first chance at parole since the nation's highest court ruled in his favor and cleared a path to freedom for hundreds of other "juvenile lifers."
Louisiana's parole board scheduled a hearing Thursday for Henry Montgomery, who was 17 when he shot and killed East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's deputy Charles Hurt in 1963. The U.S. Supreme Court's January 2016 ruling in Montgomery's case opened the door for roughly 2,000 other juvenile offenders to argue for their release after receiving mandatory life-without-parole sentences.
In June, a state judge who resentenced Montgomery to life with the possibility of parole called him a "model prisoner" who appears to be rehabilitated. A grandson of the slain sheriff's deputy said he plans to urge the parole board to keep Montgomery in prison.
Keith Nordyke, Montgomery's attorney for the parole board proceedings, said his client has completed a 100-hour "pre-release course" and received other services to help with his transition if he is released from prison. But freedom wouldn't come easy for Montgomery after decades behind bars, Nordyke added.
"I call it 'Rip Van Winkle syndrome.' The world has passed him by in many respects," he said. "We're talking about somebody who has never held a cellphone in his hands. He's never experienced a computer."
Montgomery initially was sentenced to death after a jury convicted him of fatally shooting Hurt, less than two weeks after his 17th birthday. 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.
In 2012, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentencing of juvenile homicide offenders to life without possibility of parole is unconstitutional "cruel and unusual" punishment. In deciding Montgomery's case last year, the nation's highest court extended a ban on mandatory life-without-parole for juvenile offenders to those already in prison. The decision ushered in a wave of new sentences and the release of dozens of inmates in states from Michigan to Pennsylvania, Arkansas and beyond.
Other former teen offenders still are waiting for a chance at resentencing in states and counties that have been slow to address the court ruling, an earlier Associated Press investigation found. In Michigan, for example, prosecutors are seeking new no-parole sentences for nearly two-thirds of 363 juvenile lifers. Those cases are on hold until the Michigan Supreme Court, which heard arguments in October, determines whether judges or juries should decide the fate of those inmates.
A new Louisiana law makes juvenile lifers eligible for release after 25 years in prison — unless a prosecutor intervenes. The state's district attorneys have asked judges to deny parole eligibility to 84 of the 255 inmates covered by the law, or about one in three cases, according to the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, an advocacy group.
A few Louisiana prosecutors are seeking to deny parole eligibility in most of their cases. Some district attorneys report case numbers that vary from the group's tally, but not enough to make a significant difference in the statewide percentage it cites.
In the U.S. Supreme Court's majority opinion for Montgomery's case, Justice Anthony Kennedy said prisoners like him "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's lawyers said he has strived to be a positive role model for other prisoners, serving as a coach and trainer for a boxing team he helped form at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Hurt was married and had three children. Jean Paul deGravelles, a grandson of the slain deputy, said he plans to address the parole board and oppose Montgomery's release. He said Montgomery, at 17, was old enough to know right from wrong when he shot Hurt, who was looking for truants when he crossed paths with the school-skipping teenager.
"This man went to trial twice, both times found guilty," said deGravelles, a captain at the Lafourche Parish Sheriff's Office. "What's so different now than when he killed (Hurt) 50 years ago? The situation hasn't changed."
Associated Press reporter Adam Geller in New York City contributed to this report.