‘Wolf Man’ goes on trial
The larger context — the racially segregated world that Montgomery lived in, along with his limited intellect and tough childhood — can’t be separated from his legal case, said Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center, who is acting as co-counsel for Montgomery before the Supreme Court.
That’s the entire premise of the Supreme Court’s earlier Miller ruling, she said. Since the decision, no juvenile can face life in prison without parole unless a judge holds a hearing to examine how his youth and individual circumstances may have affected his actions.
“Context is important,” Levick said. “Montgomery’s case illustrates the type of miscarriage of justice that the court wanted to avoid in issuing its Miller decision.”
The day Montgomery was arrested, detectives took a newspaper photographer from the Morning Advocate along with them as Montgomery showed them the shed behind his grandparents’ house and pointed to the small .22-caliber pistol he’d hidden in the rafters. Montgomery also took detectives to the park and re-enacted the crime, the newspaper reported.
That same day, the detectives taped his confession. No need to inform him of his “right to remain silent” beforehand, because the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miranda decision wouldn’t be rendered for three more years.
The following day, the headline in the Morning Advocate read, “Negro admits panic slaying of BR deputy: revolver and cartridges are recovered.”
The same day, the newspaper reported that Montgomery told detectives he had skipped out of his 10th-grade classes to take a nap in the park. There, he ran into Hurt, who had walked behind the recreation center to “break up ‘hooky-playing’ in the area,” according to the newspaper.
Johnnie Jones, Montgomery’s former lawyer, remembered what he’d heard. Hurt was patting down Montgomery from the waist down in case he had a knife or gun. But Montgomery had put his gun in the breast pocket of his jacket, Jones said.
“So while the police was patting him down from his waist to his shoe top, Henry had a Saturday night special, a little gun, under his arm,” Jones said. “He panicked and shot the officer.”
The landmark Gideon U.S. Supreme Court decision had come down eight months earlier, finding that defendants have a fundamental right to counsel. So the judge appointed two lawyers for the 17-year-old: Jones and Murphy Bell. They defended him for the next six years, through two trials, after a higher court overturned the first verdict.
Both attorneys were well-known for their civil rights work, defending activists in sit-ins and other protests and desegregating schools, parks and even amusement parks. The two lawyers were devoted to the Montgomery case even though they were unpaid; the court didn’t yet pay appointed lawyers, Jones said.
The Morning Advocate covered the first trial extensively. Right from the start, his lawyers entered a plea of innocent by reason of insanity and called attention to his developmental disabilities. They described his “low mentality” and “weak-mindedness” and implied that he was paranoid and easily provoked. They argued that press accounts using his Wolf Man nickname had prejudiced jurors into thinking that Montgomery was a “character with a vicious nature.”
Yet his attorneys never said he didn’t murder Hurt. From that perspective, prosecutors appeared to have an airtight case. The audio of his confession was played for the jury, which also visited the park and the shed where Montgomery said he hid the gun.
In arguments that mirror some of the defenses of vulnerable youth made four decades later in the Miller case, Jones argued that Montgomery’s intellectual deficits — “the mentality of a three-year-old” — made it difficult to prove intent to kill. In other words, Montgomery may have killed Hurt, but it was a rash act, a mistake.
Still, District Attorney Sargent Pitcher was resolute in his closing arguments in the first trial. “If you bring in anything but a capital verdict, you’ll be jeopardizing the life of every law enforcement officer in this parish,” he told the jurors. Jurors ultimately agreed with him.
After a nine-day trial — unusually long for a black defendant during that era — 12 white male jurors deliberated for a day and a half. They came back with a guilty ruling and a death sentence.
Montgomery’s lawyers appealed the death sentence, citing a few dozen errors, including the lack of black jurors, a prosecutor who described the lawyers with racial epithets and other prejudicial factors outside the courtroom.
Two years later, the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Montgomery, partly based on Klan cross-burnings that had been threatened before the start of the trial and partly because the trial had begun on what the city had declared “Charles Hurt Day,” meant to raise money for the victim’s widow and his young children.
The atmosphere denied Montgomery a fair trial, the court wrote. “No one could reasonably say that the verdict and the sentence were lawfully obtained.”
The second trial received less publicity. By that time, five years after Montgomery had originally stepped into the courtroom, the mood seemed calmer.
Montgomery’s lawyers fought, unsuccessfully, to bar his confession on the basis of the Miranda decision. The district attorney did not push the death penalty. The trial took only a day and a half; the jury deliberated for about 90 minutes and found Montgomery guilty of first-degree murder.
He was given a mandatory sentence of life without possibility of parole and sent to Angola.
Life sentences for youth aren’t uncommon in some counties
Even if the Supreme Court rules that Montgomery should have an opportunity for parole, the door will likely open slowly, if at all. A judge with jurisdiction over his case could change his sentence or set him free. Or the state legislature could grant parole hearings for prisoners like him after a certain amount of time served.
At each point, Montgomery could be released. Or not.
For youths convicted of murder since 2012, life sentences are still possible, but they can no longer be mandatory. As a result, the Supreme Court justices wrote in Miller, the sentences would likely be “uncommon.”
That’s true — in most jurisdictions. Recently, the Phillips Black Project, named for a nonprofit law firm, published a study showing that nine states are historically responsible for imposing 80 percent of juvenile life-without-parole sentences: California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
That has continued despite the Miller decision. Over the past three years, the report found, a handful of counties — including Orleans and East Baton Rouge in Louisiana — have been responsible for a share of such sentences “widely disproportionate from their population.”
Moore, the district attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish, acknowledged that the Montgomery case was tried during a well-documented period of racial strife. "It was a completely different time for the entire community," he said. Yet he stands behind the decision to pursue life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in his parish. Since the Miller decision, four juveniles convicted of murder have faced such sentences, he said. "In three of four cases, the court found that life was appropriate," Moore said.
Moore is a caerful reader familiar with new findings on adolescent brain development, which show that the brain is still developing well into adulthood. "I'm all for keeping kids out of the system," Moore said, noting that he scrutinizes each case individually to decide whether juvenile defendants should be kept in juvenile court or tried as adults, where life without possibility of parole is still an option.
"None of these cases are easy," Moore said. "But some wave their hands and say, 'You must try me as an adult'." And in those cases, Moore said, he will continue to pursue life sentences, if that's the outcome that best serves public safety.
Because of Miller, sentencing is now a two-step process: Juveniles who face life-without-parole sentences must have a sentencing hearing that puts their youth into context by examining brain development, history of hardships and home life. Similar hearings have been commonplace in death penalty cases since the 1970s.
Nothing like that existed in 1964 when Montgomery first faced trial. Yet, in their closing arguments, his lawyers presented similar justifications to explain, for instance, their client’s confession.
“What else could you expect that child to say, with the type of mind he has?” Jones asked. “From his very birth, this child has been ‘off.’”
Sure, Montgomery was 6 feet tall and — as press accounts had noted — he had even worn a “slight mustache” at times, Jones said.
“He looked like a man,” Jones told jurors, but his intellectual capacity didn’t match his physical maturity. “The size doesn’t make the man. The mind makes the man.”
Then Bell began his final arguments. He, too, foreshadowed the Miller decision as he described how his client lacked an intent to kill. Instead, Montgomery’s reaction was impulsive, Bell argued. “He merely panicked. He was scared and he had a gun in his hand, so he fired.”
This story is the product of a collaboration between the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national nonprofit news outlet; The Lens, a nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans; and the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, independent investigative news outlet.