High court to decide whether young murderers can one day go free

People wait in line outside the Supreme Court in Washington in hopes of admittance for oral arguments.
(Molly Riley / Associated Press)

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether young murderers who are sentenced to life in prison have a right to seek their freedom after years behind bars.

The court said Monday it will hear the appeal of a Louisiana man who was 17 in 1963 when he killed a police officer in Baton Rouge. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole. The murder took place about a week before President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas.

The court will hear arguments in the fall about whether Henry Montgomery, now 68, and other convicts like him deserve at least a chance to seek release on parole.


The outcome will affect several hundred prisoners around the nation who are serving life terms for murders they committed when they were younger than 18.

In the past decade, the high court has put some limits on the punishments meted out to criminal defendants who are under age 18.

The justices struck down the death penalty for juvenile murderers, ruling it was cruel and unusual punishment. They also voted to abolish sentences of life in prison with no parole for young offenders who commit such crimes as robbery or assault.

Three years ago, the court, in a 5-4 decision, extended that ruling and said it was unconstitutional to automatically impose a life term with no parole for a murder defendant who was younger than 18.

Because children and young teens are not the same as adults, the high court said trial judges must at least consider whether a young murderer deserves a lesser sentence or an eventual opportunity to seek parole.

But the court did not say whether its decision applied retroactively to the hundreds of inmates across the nation who were serving life terms for crimes they committed when they were under age 18.


Last year, the court had agreed to hear the case of another Louisiana defendant, but prosecutors decided to release that inmate before his case could be heard.

The court now said it will hear the case of Henry Montgomery vs. Louisiana. Arguments will be heard in the fall.

Twitter: @DavidGSavage