Teens Sentenced To Die In Prison May Not Get A New Day In Court -- Yet

The Supreme Court may punt on the issue of life imprisonment for minors.

Henry Montgomery has spent more than 50 years behind bars after his conviction for killing a sheriff's deputy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was 17 at the time of his arrest.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether Montgomery is eligible for a new day in court -- and potentially freedom -- based on a 2012 decision that it was unconstitutional to sentence teenagers to an automatic term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Specifically, Montgomery asked the justices to establish that that 2012 case, Miller v. Alabama, be extended retroactively to prisoners like him -- people who as juveniles were sentenced to die in prison long before that ruling became the law. 

In his case, that would be 1969, when a Louisiana jury -- following an earlier trial and death sentence that were invalidated, in part, due to a climate of racial agitation against Montgomery -- found the teen guilty and decided he should spend the rest of his days in state prison.

A file photo from a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, paper following the trial of 17-year-old Henry Montgomery, convicted for the 1963
A file photo from a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, paper following the trial of 17-year-old Henry Montgomery, convicted for the 1963 murder of a sheriff's deputy.

Photo via the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, which covers juvenile justice issues around the country.

But rather than tackling the retroactivity issue head on, the justices spent a large chunk of the 75-minute oral argument squabbling over whether they should even hear the case at all. It was a sideshow over the court's "jurisdiction," a matter that so concerned the justices that they used up nearly their whole time discussing it.

At one point, Justice Stephen Breyer appeared exasperated by all the back-and-forth over such preliminaries and tried to bring his colleagues back to reality. He compared Montgomery's situation to that of "human beings who are in prison" in violation of the Constitution -- in which case the Supreme Court would arguably have no option but to get involved.

"We clearly have jurisdiction, don't we? I'm trying to figure this out," Breyer said in an attempt to get to the heart of Montgomery's case.

In a nutshell, the hangup Breyer and the other justices were facing stemmed from whether the Louisiana Supreme Court, which shot down Montgomery's request for retroactivity, relied on state law, federal law or both. Typically, the Supreme Court doesn't like to second-guess the judgment of state courts if they're merely interpreting their own laws, so the justices seemed to want to make certain they weren't meddling.

Oddly, everyone with a real stake in the outcome of the case agreed the justices wouldn't be meddling and should decide the retroactivity issue anyway. That includes the lawyers for Montgomery, the state of Louisiana and the United States government, which got 15 minutes of argument time because of 27 federal prisoners who may benefit from a favorable ruling for Montgomery.

But the impact could be far broader. If the court rules that all juveniles who commit heinous crimes, no matter when they were sentenced, deserve an opportunity to prove they're worthy of parole, upwards of 2,000 prisoners sentenced as youths to die in prison could receive a hearing to demonstrate their rehabilitation. All of them live in a number of holdout states that have refused to give former youth offenders an opportunity for a less harsh sentence.

A decision in favor of Montgomery would fit within a larger pattern of treating children differently under the Constitution.

For the past 10 years, the Supreme Court has actively expanded the scope of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment to harsh sentences affecting minors. In 2005, the court ruled that states can't impose the death penalty on minors convicted of capital offenses, and 2010, it said if a youth is convicted of a crime that's not a homicide, he or she cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment

In the Miller case, which Montgomery now wants to make retroactive to his situation, the justices echoed those earlier rulings and said that sentencing someone who is younger than 18 to die in prison "reflects an irrevocable judgment about [an offender's] value and place in society," and that it cannot be squared "with a child’s capacity for change." 

After Tuesday's hearing, it's not clear whether the Supreme Court is even ready to go there. But even if the court decides to punt on Montgomery's case, there are a number of cases raising similar issues that the justices may very well agree to hear in the coming weeks or months.

The court has said that "evolving standards of decency have played a central role in our Eighth Amendment jurisprudence for at least a century." One or all of those cases could grant Montgomery and thousands more the reprieve they seek.