An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Will Supreme Court Allow Juvenile Life Sentence Ruling To Be Retroactive?


And the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today in a case that could determine the fate of more than 2,000 convicted juvenile murderers. In 2012, the court struck down as unconstitutional state laws that mandated an automatic sentence of life without possibility of parole in these cases. The question now is, does that decision apply retroactively? NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has more.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Today's case began more than a half-century ago, when Henry Montgomery, an African-American teenager, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for the murder of a white police officer in Louisiana. Now 70 years old, Montgomery is asking for a new sentencing hearing. The Montgomery case is a procedural spiderweb. But it will ultimately determine whether some 2,100 people serving life terms for committing murder when they were juveniles have any chance of ever getting out of prison. In the criminal law, the Supreme Court does not usually make its decisions retroactive. But there are exceptions, and this could be one of them. The state of Louisiana, represented by lawyer Kyle Duncan, will tell the court that its 2012 decision did not establish such a major change in the law that it should reach back to apply the ruling to old cases.

KYLE DUNCAN: It doesn't categorically strike down a punishment. It very clearly says that life without parole is still a constitutional punishment under the Eighth Amendment for juvenile murderers.

TOTENBERG: But Mark Plaisance, representing Montgomery, will counter that the court's 2012 decision clearly spelled out that juvenile killers could not be automatically sentenced to life in prison. Indeed, the court suggested such a draconian punishment should be rare for juveniles.

MARK PLAISANCE: So when Mr. Montgomery was convicted, the state had only one option. It could only sentence him to mandatory life in prison. Now the court has a range of options.

TOTENBERG: Namely, sentences well below that in terms of years or the possibility of parole. Indeed, Louisiana is one of a dozen states that have actually changed state laws for juvenile killers to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. Louisiana now makes parole possible after 35 years in prison. Henry Montgomery would qualify for a parole hearing under the new law. But the state courts have said that law too does not apply retroactively. The state maintains that holding new sentencing hearing in these cases would be time-consuming, expensive and that the results would be inaccurate. Louisiana's Kyle Duncan notes that under the Supreme Court's 2012 decision, sentencing judges are supposed to consider the juvenile offender's age, background, the possibility of rehabilitation and the circumstances of the crime. He says about half of those serving these sentences now have been in prison for more than 20 years. And he argues that in many cases, the witnesses, prosecutors and defense lawyers may be dead, school and medical records impossible to find, et cetera.

DUNCAN: The sentencing is supposed to be a nuanced process where you consider all the circumstances of the crime, the circumstances of the offender. It would be a mess.

MARSHA LEVICK: I think it's a red herring. This is practical. It can be done. It has been done.

TOTENBERG: Marsha Levick, one of the lawyers representing lifer Montgomery, counters that hundreds of these juvenile offenders have already been resentenced in states where the law has been changed or considered retroactive by lower courts. And she argues that these sentences are far more accurate than prospective sentences.

LEVICK: Ironically, when you look at these cases 20, 30 or 40 years later, there's actually much better information about their capacity for rehabilitation and what's happened to them during their time in prison.

DUNCAN: Is that relevant, how you did in prison as opposed to how you were when you did the crime?

TOTENBERG: Louisiana lawyer Kyle Duncan.

DUNCAN: It seems to us really artificial to stay, well, he's been in prison now, and he's shown that he can be rehabilitated.

TOTENBERG: Levick, chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center, disagrees, noting that Henry Montgomery has been a model prisoner for decades. Even without hope of release, he served as a coach and trainer for a boxing team he helped establish and has served as a mentor and counselor for other prisoners.

LEVICK: I think it's quite remarkable, looking at someone who's spent 50 years in Angola - which was once dubbed I think the bloodiest, most violent, most corrupt prison in the United States - that he has retained a measure of dignity, a sense of responsibility and a sense of his own humanity.

TOTENBERG: A decision in the case is expected later in the term. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.