Henry Montgomery will observe his 69th birthday next month. Of his three score and nine years, Montgomery will have served 52 in prison. He was 17 when he killed Louisiana deputy sheriff Charles Hurt, was convicted in state court, and was sentenced to die. He was 20 when the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed his conviction because of the atmosphere—racial hostility and even cross-burnings—in East Baton Rouge at the time of his trial. He was 23 when he was retried and when the new jury picked “guilty without capital punishment” as its verdict, which meant mandatory life without parole. He was 43 when Evan Miller was born, and 66 when, in Miller’s case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders”—meaning defendants who, like Montgomery, were underage at the time of the crime. The Court didn’t hold that such a sentence was never permitted; but the majority opinion by Justice Elena Kagan said, “we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Montgomery’s argument that Miller v. Alabama should allow him the hope of parole—the bare legal possibility, if nothing else, that he may one day demonstrate that he has changed, and walk in the open air briefly before he dies. Montgomery v. Louisiana focuses on a single question: Does the Court’s decision in Miller apply to all prisoners who were sent to prison for life without parole, no matter how long ago, for crimes they committed as juveniles?