On Wednesday, Henry Montgomery walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, popularly known as Angola, after almost 58 years. To put those 58 years in context, remember that in 1963, this was a Jim Crow country. Malcolm X wouldn’t be assassinated for two more years and Martin Luther King Jr. for five more. Mass incarceration didn’t exist when Montgomery, then-17, was convicted of the murder of Charles Hurt, an East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy. Montgomery was initially sentenced to death; after his original conviction was thrown out, he was sentenced on retrial to life without parole.
A run of Supreme Court cases radically changed the American legal sentencing landscape.
Years ago, I visited Angola with a group of advocates working to transform the criminal justice system. We were with Norris Henderson, one of this country’s staunchest critics of the criminal justice system’s failures and a leader who has committed his life to making sure folks coming home from prison have real opportunities to transform their lives. Henderson showed us the law library in Angola where he’d earned his freedom after serving 27 years. That afternoon, we spoke with nearly 30 inmate lawyers, as they called themselves, engines of possibility struggling to find a legal theory that would demand that this country consider mercy and redemption as a case for freedom. And I remember realizing that day that Montgomery was still in prison after more than 50 years, despite having been the plaintiff in Montgomery v. Louisiana, one of the most historic cases in the last quarter-century, the case that sparked hope among people who’d been sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles.
Today most people believe that juveniles aren’t as culpable as adults are for the crimes they commit because the prefrontal cortex — that part of the brain providing impulse control, among other things — isn’t fully developed. But this wasn’t always the case, particularly in criminal sentences. A run of Supreme Court cases radically changed the American legal sentencing landscape.
In the 2005 case Roper v. Simmons, the court held that it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to death; in 2010’s Graham v. Florida, juvenile sentences of life without parole in nonhomicide cases were ruled unconstitutional; two years later, in Miller v. Alabama, mandatory sentences of life without parole were ruled unconstitutional; and, in 2013, in the case in which Montgomery was the plaintiff, the Supreme Court made its Miller decision retroactive, meaning it applied to any juvenile who’d ever been given a mandatory sentence of life without parole. These cases, together, meant that many juveniles who’d been in prison for decades and expected to die there would have chances to be resentenced.
As quiet as it's kept, until Wednesday, these cases provided little more than hope for most folks. The named plaintiffs in these cases rarely benefited from their Supreme Court wins. Terrence Graham, who was sentenced to life in prison for a robbery and home invasion and prevailed in Graham v. Florida, was resentenced to 25 years. Evan Miller, who, at 14, was the youngest person to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole, was resentenced: to life without parole. Christopher Simmons, who had been sentenced to death, was resentenced to life without parole. And across the country, many juveniles have been resentenced to terms of imprisonment just as egregious.
Montgomery’s release is worthy of note because while there has been plenty of discussion about mass incarceration in academic and nonacademic settings over the past decade, there remains a group of incarcerated men who are still struggling to be free and even struggling to have their right to freedom taken seriously by the public.
We imagine that the cruelty of prison is a kind of amends for families who suffer.
I can hear someone asking: Well, what of Montgomery’s victim and the victim’s family? I know that they’ve lived with the senseless killing of Mr. Hurt every one of the days of the almost 58 years that Montgomery has been incarcerated. But I don’t believe knowing that Montgomery was in prison reduced the suffering. We imagine that the cruelty of prison is a kind of amends for families who suffer, as if the lines between victim and victimizer aren’t so often blurred that so many in prison, both before and after they arrived, have been both.
But more than that, as a country, we seem to have given up reckoning with mercy or asking ourselves whether it’s permissible for us to condemn someone to death in a cell.
I know what the inside of a cell feels like. When I went to prison, I knew I’d been lucky. I’d been sentenced to nine years for carjacking in a state where carjacking carried a possible sentence of life in prison. I was 16. No fewer than six of my cellmates had life sentences, many of them having arrived at prison as teenagers like Montgomery had.
Since being released from prison and going to the University of Maryland and then Yale Law School, I’ve returned to prisons often. And over the past five years, I’ve been working to help men I served time with get released. They all entered as teenagers. And Montgomery’s release for them is a glimmer of hope. A hope that the Virginia parole board might continue to think about how they’ve changed in prison and how they’d be much better assets to the community given the chance to be free again.
In recent weeks I’ve talked to them a lot about freedom, about the importance of their telling their stories. Some are afraid to have their names mentioned in print, believing attention is the worst thing to bring to a parole board. They remember that the release of Vincent Martin on parole after he’d served more than 40 years in prison triggered a series of vicious attacks on the parole board. It didn’t matter that Martin was a man so respected by correctional officers and prisoners alike that all called him “Brother Martin” and praised him as peaceful and reformed. Because many politicians and pundits cared not about the transformation of Martin’s life — but only about his crimes.
Others want their names in print. And I want to remember them. Men like Jarade Smith, whom I met when I was 16 and was being forced to live in one of the most violent places I’ve ever known. In the 20 years that he’s been incarcerated, Smith has found a way to grow into a leader and a mentor and someone for whom every additional day in a cell is truly a waste. I want to mention Jermaine Bell, who was incarcerated the same year I was and has endured tumors and far more medical ailments than I could detail in these few paragraphs, who was saved by the men around him when they brought attention to his failing health and finally got him treatment. Who, now that he’s eligible for parole, hopes the Virginia parole board recognizes that men like him and Smith turned their lives around when they had no hope of release.
Both are in for murder, and sometimes I wish I’d had a tape recorder to capture the remorse I’ve heard in their voices. Neither believes anything changes the past, but both know prison forecloses the chance to fully make amends.
They’re both similar to Montgomery, who, according to Henderson, our guide at Angola, was a mentor to many young folks inside years ago, when his release wasn’t legally possible. Montgomery’s release doesn’t reflect a society that is truly grappling with what redemption and mercy look like. Sadly, his release after nearly 58 years is a consequence of this country’s cruelty. But it can be a call to change. And I hope the parole board that released him is celebrated for finally making the right decision and mightily encouraged to do so far more quickly for others.
CORRECTION (Nov. 19, 2021 10:43 a.m. E.T.) An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of the East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy who was murdered by Henry Montgomery. He is Charles Hurt, not Hunt.