Washington — More than 1,000 prison inmates, some behind bars more than 50 years for murders they committed as teenagers, will get a chance to seek their freedom under a Supreme Court decision announced Monday.

The justices voted 6-3 to extend a ruling from 2012 that struck down automatic life terms with no chance of parole for teenage killers. Now, even those who were convicted long ago must be considered for parole or given a new sentence, although the situation is more complicated in Michigan.

The court ruled in favor of Henry Montgomery, who has been in prison more than 50 years for killing a sheriff’s deputy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1963. Montgomery was 17 years old and playing hooky from high school when he encountered Deputy Charles Hurt, who was on truant patrol. Montgomery pulled a gun from his pocket and shot Hurt dead in a panic, he said.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, said that “prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

Kennedy said states do not have to go so far as to resentence people serving life terms. Instead, states can offer parole hearings, with no guarantee of release if inmates fail to show that they have been rehabilitated.

Louisiana and Michigan are among the seven states that had refused to apply the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling to about 1,200 inmates who may now qualify for parole hearings. Alabama, Colorado, Minnesota, Montana and Pennsylvania are the other states, according to public interest law firms that advocate on behalf of inmates.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office said Monday it is still reviewing the High Court’s decision.

Ann Arbor attorney Deborah Labelle, lead counsel on a separate federal case involving Michigan juvenile lifers, said the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals will now have to decide whether more than 300 Michigan prisoners deserve resentencing or parole hearings.

“I think it’s a wonderful affirmation of what many of us know — that there are many, many youth sitting in prison long after they’ve been rehabilitated and can rejoin us,” LaBelle said.

“This gives them the opportunity to demonstrate that and come home.”

Michigan judges and lawmakers have spent years grappling with the implications of the 2012 Supreme Court decision, which invalidated sentencing schemes in Michigan and other states that had led to automatic life terms without the possibility of parole for young people convicted of certain violent crimes.

Legislators updated state law in 2014, allowing judges in future cases to consider a term of between 25 and 60 years for young people convicted of first-degree murder. The law includes a retroactivity “trigger” applying similar rules to current inmates if a Supreme Court ruling came down, as it did Monday.

U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara in late 2013 ordered the state to develop a process for juvenile lifer parole hearings, but Schuette appealed that decision to the 6th Circuit, which was awaiting clarification from the U.S. Supreme Court. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled against retroactivity in 2014.

“This is very decisive, and it reverses the Michigan Supreme Court ruling,” Labelle said of Monday’s 6-3 ruling.

It’s not immediately clear how many Michigan prisoners will get a quick shot at release because of Monday’s ruling. State Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said 162 “juvenile lifers” have not yet met minimum time-served requirements for parole hearings under the 2014 state law.

Opens painful experiences

The state law also gives prosecutors 180 days from Monday’s Supreme Court ruling to request that a prisoner be resentenced to life without the possibility of a parole. The judge would have to consider mitigating circumstances, including youth, but could still hand down the state’s harshest penalty.

Jody Robinson of Davidson, whose brother was killed by a teen and her older boyfriend in 1990, responded to Monday’s Supreme Court ruling with a single word: “Devastation.” She quickly added a second: “Fear.”

“I’ve been dealing with this for over 25 years now, and each and every time it’s re-traumatizing,” Robinson said of the lengthy legal battle and prospect of her brother’s killer returning to court for a parole or resentencing hearing. “It’s a painful experience, and it rips your heart out.”

Her brother, James Cotaling, was 28 when he was stabbed to death. Barbara Hernandez, convicted for her role in a crime committed when she was 16, is now 41 and remains behind bars at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility. Robinson now serves as secretary of the National Organization for the Victims of Juvenile Lifers.

“We have to deal with this offender for the rest of our lives. We can never move on,” she said of her family. “Ultimately, we’re the innocent ones and we’ve been given a life sentence.”

Many states either have no inmates like Montgomery or have given them new prison sentences or parole hearings.

Life sentences still possible

Monday’s decision does not expressly foreclose judges from sentencing teenagers to a lifetime in prison. But the Supreme Court has previously said such sentences should be rare, and only for the most heinous crimes.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the ruling “is just a devious way of eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders.” Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined Scalia’s dissent.

Four years ago, in a case called Miller v. Alabama, the justices struck down automatic life sentences with no chance of release for teenage killers. But the court did not say at the time if that ruling applied retroactively to Montgomery and other inmates like him, whose convictions are final.

In the 5-4 decision from 2012, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority that judges weighing prison terms for young offenders must take into account “the mitigating qualities of youth,” among them immaturity and the failure to understand fully the consequences of their actions.

Detroit News Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.


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