By: Halee Snellgrove Maturin

In 1963, here in East Baton Rouge, 17-year-old Henry Montgomery was found guilty of murdering a police officer, Charles Hurt. While he was initially sentenced to death, the judge declared a mistrial and as a result of this second trial, Montgomery was found guilty without capital punishment. Under then-existing Louisiana law, this verdict required the trial court to impose an automatic sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

Almost 50 years after Montgomery’s life sentence, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Miller v. Alabama, in which they held that imposing mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without parole for juvenile homicide offenders violates the 8th Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Miller now requires that sentencing courts consider the juvenile’s age, diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change and reform when determining their sentence. 

Once the Court published their opinion in Miller, Montgomery sought collateral review of his life sentence in Louisiana courts. Montgomery argued that Miller should be applied retroactively to his case, as the holding in Miller made his mandatory sentence of life without parole illegal. The Louisiana state trial court and supreme court both denied his motion for collateral review, so the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari. After hearing oral arguments from both parties in October 2015, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and announced on January 25, 2016, held that Miller v. Alabama established a substantive rule of constitutional law and as such, Miller should be applied retroactively to all cases where a juvenile homicide offender was given a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

Montgomery v. Louisiana presented two major issues to the Supreme Court: 1) Does the United States Supreme Court have jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana correctly refused to give retroactive effect to Miller? 2) Does Miller adopt a substantive rule that applies retroactively on collateral review to people condemned as juveniles to die in prison?

The resolution of the first issue relied on the 1989 case of Teague v. Lane, in which the Supreme Court held that courts must give retroactive effect to new substantive rules of constitutional law. When a new substantive rule of constitutional law controls the outcome of a case, as it would here, the Constitution requires state collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that rule, regardless of when the conviction in that case became final.

A conviction that was imposed in violation of a substantive rule is not just erroneous but is contrary to current law and, as a result, is void. Therefore, if in deciding the second issue, the Court in this Montgomery case decided that the law created in Miller was a substantive rule, then all state courts would have to enforce it retroactively. As quoted by Justice Kennedy, “there is no grandfather clause that permits States to enforce punishments the Constitution forbids.” Montgomery’s main claim is that Miller announced a substantive constitutional rule, and that the Louisiana courts erred by failing to recognize the rule’s retroactive effect.  The majority decided that the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review the Louisiana courts’ determination and decide whether or not the rule created in Miller is procedural or substantive.

The second issue of Montgomery v. Louisiana is centered around what type of rule Miller v. Alabama created – a procedural rule or a substantive one. To answer this, you must first understand the reasoning behind the Court’s holding in Miller. The main logic behind the Court’s banning mandatory sentences for life without parole was that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Children lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, which leads to acting on impulses, increased risk-taking, and recklessness. Children are also more vulnerable to negative influences and pressures, as well as lacking the ability to remove themselves from crime-producing settings and home life. In addition, a child’s character is not as well formed as an adult, which leads to the conclusion that a child may not be irreparably damaged and depraved and that rehabilitation is more plausible with a child than with an adult.

On top of that argument, the Court also found that there was a lack of strong justification for the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole. The argument of retribution is directly linked to the concept of the offender’s blameworthiness, and this concept of blame is not nearly as strong when the offender is a juvenile. The deterrence approach is diminished by the lack of impulse control that children possess, because their impulsivity makes them less likely to consider potential punishment before acting. Finally, the rehabilitation argument is non-existent, since these offenders are going to spend the rest of their lives in prison and therefore have no societal need for rehabilitation. When a punishment has no justification behind it, it cannot be constitutionally enforced.

In Miller, the Court rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for a class of defendants because of their status as juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth. Miller is thus retroactive because it necessarily carries a significant risk that a defendant (in this case, a juvenile homicide offender) faces a punishment that the law cannot impose on him.

In this case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, Louisiana argued that Miller established a procedural rule, not a substantive one, because it required courts to enact the procedure of considering an offender’s age when sentencing him to life in prison. However, the Court rejected this argument and held that Miller primarily established a substantive rule and, then, as a secondary holding, Miller provided the procedural safeguards to ensure that the substantive rule is met.

In deciding the second issue, the Court held that Miller established a substantive rule of constitutional law when it held that the punishment of mandatory life imprisonment without parole violated the 8th Amendment. In retroactively enforcing Miller, the state courts do not have to re-litigate every conviction and sentence in which a juvenile received a mandatory life sentence without parole. Instead, Miller would be satisfied by allowing juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them. This parole consideration ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity, and who have since matured, will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the 8th Amendment. On the other hand, those inmates who have shown an inability to reform will be denied parole and will continue to serve their life sentences.

Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito joined in their dissent to Montgomery v. Louisiana. Scalia wrote the dissent, arguing that the Supreme Court did not have the jurisdiction to review this case. Scalia stated that the principle of finality of decisions dictates that whether a new constitutional rule will be applied to a final state court conviction is entirely up to the state. He argued that state courts only need to apply the constitutional rule that existed at the time of conviction, and the Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction to review that decision. Scalia was also of the opinion that the rule created in Miller was a procedural one, not substantive.

Despite joining in Scalia’s dissent, Thomas also wrote his own, stating that the question of whether a constitutional right is retroactive asks whether there is an appropriate remedy, not whether the right was violated in the first place. Thomas further argued that because the Supreme Court cannot force state court to apply constitutional rules that were not in existence at the time of conviction, there is no constitutional remedy that would make the constitutional right in question apply retroactively.

Overall, the result of Miller v. Alabama and its retroactive application, as set forth in Montgomery v. Louisiana, is that enforcing a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the opportunity for parole against juvenile homicide offenders violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. As a whole, children are much more susceptible to change than adults, and the Constitution now requires that these juvenile offenders be given the opportunity to demonstrate their changed disposition to the court and thus be considered for parole.

One of our second-year law students, Kathryn Jakuback, had the opportunity to work with the East Baton Rouge Public Defender’s Office on this case. “It was really incredible to watch this process evolve from brief to Supreme Court argument and then to a judgment in our favor.” When asked about her opinion on the outcome of the case, Jakuback stated that she “can’t wait to see what this means for Henry Montgomery and for everyone else that this decision affects.”


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