This story was updated January 25, 2016, to reflect the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana.

In a significant win for people serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed as children, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 6-3 in Montgomery v. Louisiana that its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, barring mandatory life without parole sentences for youth, applies retroactively. 

Jeffrey Pokorak, Suffolk University vice provost for faculty and curriculum and a distinguished law professor, played a significant role in the case and the Miller case that set the stage for the ruling.

"The great thing about the case is that the court went further than the narrow retroactivity decision and made it clear that a sentence of life without parole is unconstitutional for a juvenile unless the state can prove that he or she is 'irreparably corrupt' or 'permanently incorrigible,'" said Pokorak. "And everything we know from brain science, adolescent research, the proofs of redemption, and our own kids is that no child is irreparably corrupt."

The decision guarantees that 69-year-old Henry Montgomery, along with as many as 2,000 others across the nation serving similar mandatory life-without-parole sentences, will receive new sentencing hearings or be considered for parole.

Pokorak focused on and wrote the sections of the Montgomery briefs regarding the questions of jurisdiction and the procedural and historical aspects of retroactivity doctrine. He also worked with the Juvenile Law Center on the Miller case.

December 21, 2015

Several years ago, Jeffrey Pokorak, Suffolk’s vice provost for faculty and curriculum, co-authored a brief on behalf of the Juvenile Law Center that ultimately led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that children, even those convicted of the most serious crimes—including murder—could not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. That case, Miller v. Alabama, maintained that such sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Now the respected Suffolk law professor and University administrator is helping to make the case that the landmark 2012 ruling should be applied retroactively to those already serving these sentences for crimes committed when they were legally children. Montgomery v. Louisiana, now before the Supreme Court, argues that once-youthful offenders, even after decades behind bars, should be resentenced.

Model prisoner 

“They picked a way-, way-, way-back-when case,” said Pokorak of the petition from Henry Montgomery who has been in prison for 45 years. Pokorak is Montgomery’s co-counsel. “He’s been a really good prisoner. He’s done well; he started a little boxing team; he’s now an elder statesman; and he’s lived longer than most people do in prison. If it’s going to apply retroactively, you might as well pick the case where it’s the most retroactive.”

Montgomery was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1963 murder of Charles Hurt, a Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy. Montgomery was 17 when the crime occurred. He was granted a new trial due to community prejudice, only to be found guilty again. This time he received life without the possibility of parole. Since 1970, Montgomery has been an inmate in Louisiana State Penitentiary, one of the nation’s most notorious prisons, commonly known as Angola. He is now 69 years old.

“We’re arguing for a resentencing,” Pokorak says. “Different states have different systems, and in Louisiana you need a resentencing. You might still get life without parole; you just can’t have an automatic life without parole.”

Twelve states already have applied Miller v. Alabama retroactively, Pokorak says. “All the kids who have been resentenced got something less than life without parole. The big ones that have decided not to apply it retroactively are Louisiana and Pennsylvania, which have the largest juvenile life-without-parole populations. But Florida, which also has a huge population, has applied it retroactively. But this is happening state by state. That’s what the Supreme Court is trying to figure out.”

2,500 serving life for crimes committed as juveniles

According to the Sentencing Project, an organization dedicated to reforming inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system, about 2,500 inmates are serving life without parole for crimes committed as juvenile offenders.

Laws regarding juvenile sentencing have come a long way since 1944, when George Stinney, Jr., an African-American teenager, was sentenced to die for the murders of two white girls in South Carolina. Stinney was only 14 when he was strapped into the electric chair, becoming the youngest person executed in this country in the 20th century. (His case was reopened in 2004; a decade later, Stinney’s conviction was vacated.)

Unanswered questions

In 2005, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles, and five years later, it struck down life without parole for crimes other than murder. In 2012 the court included murder in the prohibition of juvenile life without parole sentences. Miller v. Alabama paved the way for Montgomery v. Louisiana, but left unanswered questions to be rectified.

“Here’s the current rule: if the court decides something doesn’t have to be applied retroactively, then a state doesn’t have to, but a state may,” Pokorak says. “If they say it has to be applied retroactively, then everybody has to apply it retroactively. That creates a new due-process right that’s owned by the individual, the right to be free from that kind of sentence.”

Montgomery v. Louisiana was argued before the court in October, and the nine justices are expected to issue a decision in 2016. That could allow for thousands of once-youthful offenders to be resentenced. Some could be granted a parole hearing and, depending on the length of their imprisonment, eventually release.

“They’re going to have to decide this at some point,” Pokorak says of the Supreme Court. “They may decide this isn’t the best case to decide it in, but at some point if they decide it’s retroactive, then Mr. Montgomery will have the benefit of it.”