The mandatory life sentences of a thousand inmates who committed their crimes as juveniles could be reduced, depending on the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case the justices consider Tuesday.
Three years ago, the court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders in murder cases were unconstitutional, violating the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. A judge or a jury must be able to consider the “hallmark features” of youth, the court said — “among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”
The issue comes in the case of Henry Montgomery, a Louisiana man who at age 17 killed a deputy sheriff in East Baton Rouge in 1963. After a court held that Montgomery’s first trial was tainted by racial prejudice — Montgomery is black and the victim was white — a second trial ended with a mandatory life sentence.
Montgomery, who is now 69, is urging the justices to hold that their 2012 ruling should apply to him. The court in his trial was unable to consider arguments that his age should matter, “including evidence that as a scared youth, Mr. Montgomery shot in panic as the officer confronted him playing hooky,” his lawyers write in their court briefs.
As a general rule, court decisions do not apply retroactively. The courts have long held that society has an interest in the finality of convictions. If every decision on important criminal issues could force old cases to be re-opened, the criminal justice process would be undermined.
But there are exceptions, as the Supreme Court spelled out in a 1989 case.