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Longtime inmate and key figure in juvenile sentence reforms finally wins parole

Nov. 17 (UPI) -- A Louisiana man who's spent the vast majority of his life in prison for killing a sheriff's deputy when he was a minor almost 60 years ago -- and whose case has been instrumental in freeing hundreds of inmates who were sentenced to life for crimes as juveniles -- is finally getting his chance to walk free.

Henry Montgomery on Wednesday appeared at his third hearing before a Louisiana parole board. The first two turned him down. The third gave him his freedom after 57 years behind bars.

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For years, advocates have said Montgomery is serving an unconscionably long sentence for a crime he committed as a minor, in spite of state Supreme Court rulings that determined that life sentences for juveniles amount to "cruel and unusual punishment."

"It is with great relief that we share that Henry Montgomery, the petitioner in the 2016 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Montgomery vs. Louisiana, was finally granted parole today," the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth tweeted Wednesday.

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"Please join us in welcoming Mr. Montgomery home. We wish him all the best, and will continue to fight for those who remain imprisoned for crimes committed as children."

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Montgomery was 17 when he shot and killed East Baton Rouge Paris Deputy Charles Hurt in 1963, after the lawman caught him skipping school. He's now 75.

He was initially sentenced to death, but that sentence was overturned in 1966 when the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that he did not receive a fair trial. After a retrial, he was sentenced to life without parole.

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Montgomery has been locked up in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as "Angola" after the former plantation that occupied the area.

"Through his personal growth, maturity, and maintenance of an excellent record of conduct while in prison, Henry proves daily that he is no longer the 17-year-old child he was in 1963," Marshan Allen, national policy director of Represent Justice, said in a tweet before Wednesday's decision.

"Henry Montgomery's case was central to the [Supreme Court] decision on juveniles sentenced to life without parole, but he's still incarcerated," the Sentencing Project tweeted. "He has spent 57 years behind bars. It's time for Henry Montgomery to come home."

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Montgomery's case was at the center of a legal fight that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and resulted in a ruling that's allowed nearly 1,000 people who were sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile to be freed.

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment, which bars "excessive" bail, fines and "cruel and unusual punishments." Four years later, the high court heard Montgomery's case and made their earlier ruling retroactive -- finally giving Montgomery a shot at parole after 53 years.

The court ruled that juvenile offenders "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."

At his first two parole hearings -- in 2018 and 2019 -- he was denied release. At both hearings, two of the three board members voted to grant him his release from prison and one voted to keep him imprisoned. At the time, parole decisions had to be unanimous.

Earlier this year, however, Louisiana changed its law to require only a majority vote if an inmate meets certain conditions -- meaning Montgomery would be freed if he got another 2-1 vote in his favor.

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The dissenting voter who voted against releasing Montgomery in 2019 said that he hadn't presented enough programs in prison. But Andrew Hundley, one of the people who was released as a result of Montgomery vs. Louisiana and director of the Louisiana Parole Project, said that Angola did not offer such programs for decades of his sentence.

"It was the most violent prison in America. There wasn't this idea of rehabilitation and that prisoners should take part in programming to rehabilitate themselves," he told The Atlantic. "That culture didn't exist and there weren't programs. You just woke up every day trying not to get killed."

Hundley added that he's felt like it's his "life's work" to get Montgomery and others like him out of prison.

"Henry was in prison 18 years before I was born. And I've been home five and a half years now."

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