Justices extend bar on automatic life terms for teenagers

The Associated Press

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.

In this file photo, Sue and Ron Witman, parents of Zachary and Gregory Witman, answer questions at a press conference with Lonnie Soury of Soury Communications Inc.

The justices voted 6-3 to extend an earlier 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.

There are currently 11 men serving life sentences without parole for committing murder in York County when they were juveniles. Their crimes were committed as long ago as 1974 and as recently as 2010.

Dawn Cutaia, attorney for Jordan Wallick, who fatally shot law student James Wallmuth III during a botched robbery in York City in 2010, is happy about the ruling.

“The decision today, is obviously, it’s a great decision,” she said. “It’s a little ridiculous that it had to be litigated.”

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 is among 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, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Pennsylvania are the other states, according to public interest law firms that advocate on behalf of inmates.

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

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.

Montgomery himself became a boxing coach and worked in the prison’s silkscreen department, which he pointed to as evidence of his maturation.

Cutaia said she thinks it is ridiculous that teenagers who commit murder today aren't facing the mandatory life sentences that teenagers who committed murder 20 years ago faced.

“Why would we treat these people differently because of time?” she said, adding that we know more about brain development for teenagers now than we did then and the ability to think things through when one is younger is still developing.

“There may very well be kids who deserve to spend the rest of their life in jail, but it should not be automatic,” she said.

Cutaia said lawyers are preparing for a new sentencing hearing for Wallick in April.

“The bottom line is just, it would be incredibly unfair to not make Miller retroactive,” she said.

Chief Justice John Roberts dissented from the 2012 decision barring automatic life sentences for young killers, but he joined the majority on Monday along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan.

The outcome in Montgomery’s case is the latest in a line of Supreme Court decisions that have limited states in the way they punish juveniles. Kennedy also wrote the 2005 decision that outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. The justices also have barred life without parole sentences for people convicted of crimes other than murder that were committed before they turned 18.

The court often applies groundbreaking decisions in criminal law retroactively.

Montgomery’s case highlights some of the problems that inmate advocates say plague the criminal justice system generally. Montgomery is African-American, and he was tried for killing the white deputy in a time of racial tension and reported cross burnings in Baton Rouge.

The State Times newspaper of Baton Rouge ran a front-page headline after Montgomery’s arrest: “Negro Held in Deputy’s Murder Here.” The story noted that “more than 60 Negroes were detained” in a parish-wide manhunt.

The Louisiana Supreme Court threw out Montgomery’s first conviction because he did not get a fair trial. He was convicted and sentenced to life after a second trial.

The case is Montgomery v. Louisiana, 14-280.

York County: In addition to Wallick, ten other men are serving life in prison for committing murders in York County as juveniles. They are:

* Scott Davis, who fatally shot neighbor Roderick Kotchin, 41, in Springettsbury Township in 1980 as he entered the man's home.

* Scott Griffin, who fatally shot girlfriend Linda D. Hagens, 17, in the chest with a deer rifle during an argument in his York City home in 1974.

* Warner Batty and co-defendant Donald Rivera, who dragged 26-year-old Betty Ilgenfritz Bradford into a deserted York City building, stripped her and beat her to death, then set her body on fire in 1975.

* Larry Markle, who fatally shot 72-year-old Arthur Klinedinst while robbing Eddie's Food Market at 566 W. Philadelphia St. in 1975. Klinedinst was a customer.

* Wilfredo Caballero, one of several teenagers who used a tree branch to fatally beat 49-year-old Jose Cosme after luring him to a secluded area in Springettsbury Township in 1988, in part to steal his drugs.

FILE - In this June 29, 2015, file photo, members of security stand outside of the Supreme Court in Washington. An Associated Press-GfK poll finds that support for legal abortion in the U.S. has edged up to its highest level in the past two years, with an apparent increase in support among Democrats and Republicans alike. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

* Dwayne Morningwake, who was one of four Children's Home of York runaways who broke into the home in 1988, fatally stabbed counselor Kwame Beatty and stole his cash and car.

* Michael Lehman, who was one of four Children's Home of York runaways who broke into the home in 1988, fatally stabbed counselor Kwame Beatty and stole his cash and car.

* Kwilson Coleman, who fatally shot 20-year-old Greg Wright in York City in 2008 as the injured Wright ran, and eventually crawled, away from Coleman.

* Daron Nesbit, who fatally shot 21-year-old Paul Smith in York City in 1997 during an argument outside a restaurant.

* Zachary Witman, who fatally stabbed his 13-year-old brother, Greg Witman, in their New Freedom home in 1998.

Dispatch reporter Christopher Dornblaser contributed to this report.