Dozens of inmates serving mandatory life sentences in North Carolina may get a chance at parole thanks to a Jan. 25 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. In an unusual move, the high court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that a 2012 ruling barring mandatory life sentences for juveniles should be applied retroactively.
Writing for the court’s 6-3 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said because the court’s earlier decision in Miller v. Alabama amounted to a “new substantive rule of constitutional law,” its holding must be applied to juvenile offenders who received mandatory life sentences before 2012. It is rare for the U.S. Supreme Court to issue an opinion on a question of criminal law that applies retroactively.
Up to 2,300 people serving mandatory life sentences across the country could be resentenced or given the chance to apply for parole in light of Monday’s ruling.
The case before the U.S. Supreme Court began more than 50 years ago, when Henry Montgomery received a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole after being convicted of murdering a police officer in Louisiana. Montgomery was just 17 at the time of the crime.
The Supreme Court’s opinion says Montgomery, now 69, has been a model inmate in the intervening five decades since his conviction.
Montgomery had little chance of ever leaving prison until 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Miller.
In that case, the justices found that sentencing a juvenile to die in prison violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments, except in the rarest of cases. The court’s opinion in Miller did not foreclose the possibility that a juvenile could receive a life sentence. But the justices said a child’s “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change” makes mandatory life sentences disproportionate, except in cases where the juvenile’s crimes reflect “irreparable corruption.”
Following the decision in Miller, Montgomery appealed his sentence to the Louisiana Supreme Court, arguing that he should receive post-conviction relief under the new precedent. He also argued that he should receive a resentencing hearing because his sentence was now illegal. The Louisiana Supreme Court denied his request, finding that Miller was not retroactive.
But on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court determined Montgomery’s sentence should be subject to further review because prior case law requires high-court decisions to be applied retroactively when they create new substantive rules of constitutional law.
“Miller’s conclusion that the sentence of life without parole is disproportionate for the vast majority of juvenile offenders raises a grave risk that many are being held in violation of the Constitution,” Kennedy said.
Answering a question raised during oral arguments, Kennedy noted that applying Miller retroactively does not require states to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Rather, states have the option of considering parole for those individuals based on their conduct while in prison.
Kennedy was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., as well as the court’s four more liberal justices.
Justice Antonin Scalia filed a lengthy dissent joined by Justice Samuel Alito Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas, in which he blasted the majority’s opinion as “just a devious way of eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders.”
Sticky questions in the Tarheel State
Montgomery v. Louisiana’s impact in North Carolina will likely be much greater than in other parts of the country, legal experts said, including in South Carolina, where
the state’s Supreme Court has already held that Miller should be applied retroactively.
In 2014, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a 3-2 ruling in Aiken v. Byars which said underage defendants who received a mandatory life sentence were entitled to seek new sentencing hearings. The court also determined that Miller should apply to cases where a juvenile received a discretionary life sentence.
In addition to having far more people serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles than its southern neighbor, North Carolina has been less clear on whether those individuals are entitled to receive resentencing hearings under Miller.
In 2012, the N.C. General Assembly responded to the Miller decision by becoming the first state to enact new sentencing guidelines for juveniles convicted of committing murder. S.B. 635 allowed juveniles convicted of felony murder to seek parole after 25 years.
“But that parole is not automatic and is not easy to obtain in North Carolina,” said Mary Pollard, executive director of N.C. Prisoner Legal Services.
In cases where a juvenile is convicted of premeditated murder, S.B. 635 requires a sentencing hearing at which mitigating evidence may be presented, including the offender’s age at the time of the crime, intellectual capacity, prior criminal record, and ability to appreciate the consequences of his or her actions, among other factors.
Juveniles can still receive life without parole following a sentencing hearing under S.B. 635. But those sentences would comply with Miller because they were not imposed on a mandatory basis.
However, S.B. 635 left unaddressed whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller should apply retroactively.
The latest data from the N.C. Department of Public Safety show that 79 people are currently serving life sentences for murders they committed as juveniles.
N.C. Department of Justice spokeswoman Noelle Talley said the department is still working to gauge the full impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Montgomery. She said there are currently about 15 cases pending in state appellate courts that raised the question of whether Miller should be applied retroactively.
Prior to Monday’s ruling, Pollard said, many individuals who sought resentencing hearings in light of Miller have met with mixed results. She said some Superior Court judges in the state have been willing to apply Miller’s findings retroactively and grant new hearings. Elsewhere in the state, judges have been hesitant to do so, she said.
The N.C. Supreme Court has had before it a handful of cases that could have addressed whether the Tarheel State would apply Miller retroactively. But the court has yet to issue a decision in those cases.
“There really hasn’t been a clear answer from the courts on that question before now,” Pollard said. “It’s great that we now have some certainty on that question.”
Solitary for juveniles
The question of whether Miller should be applied retroactively was not the only legal issue facing juveniles embroiled in the criminal justice system to be cleared up last week.
On Monday, President Barack Obama announced that he had directed federal prisons to no longer use solitary confinement as a punishment tool for juveniles and low-level offenders. Obama said in a Jan. 25 op-ed published in The Washington Post that solitary confinement prevents people from getting a second chance.
“Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences. It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior,” he said.
The change could affect as many as 10,000 federal inmates, roughly one-tenth of the U.S. prison population currently held in solitary confinement, according to the White House. The new rules also reduced the maximum amount of time prisoners can be punished with solitary confinement from 365 days to 60 days.
Obama’s directive came as part of the president’s push to enact criminal justice reform—an effort that has met with rare bipartisan support in Washington. The U.S. Senate is considering legislation to reform sentencing laws and correctional institutions. The measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall in a bipartisan 15-5 vote.
Follow Jeff Jeffrey on Twitter @NCLWJeffrey