On Monday, while everyone in the DC Metropolitan area was still digging out snow, the Supreme Court released an opinion stating that juveniles under the age of 18 who were sentenced to life without parole before 2012 may apply to courts to reconsider their sentences. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could not be given the death penalty. Again, in 2012, the High Court prohibited sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles. In doing so however, it did not make the ruling retroactive to those who had already been sentenced.
Henry Montgomery, the petitioner, is now 69 years of age and sentenced to life without parole for murder of a law enforcement officer he committed when he was 17. The Supreme Court ruled with Justice Kennedy writing the opinion stated, “Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity — and who have since matured — will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment”. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court’s 6-3 majority. The usual dissenters were Justices Anthony Scalia, Clarence Thomas joined by Justice Samuel Alito.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court, when it prohibited life without the possibility of parole for juveniles, did not apply it retroactively. Thus, those who are now serving sentences without parole convicted before 2012, such as approximately 1500 prisoners, must apply to have their sentences reduced and show their entitlement to life with the possibility of parole. It does not mean, if granted, that they will be paroled—only eligible for parole.
The case of one of the most infamous juveniles serving life without parole is Lee Boyd Malvo. Malvo, one of the DC Sniper killers, is eligible under the Supreme Court’s ruling. Malvo is now 30 but was 17 when the killing spree with John Allen Muhammad occurred in 2002. Malvo along with Muhammad went on a killing spree for three weeks in 2002 in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, killing 10 people and seriously injuring three survivors. He went on trial and received multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole in Maryland and Virginia. While Malvo is one of those eligible under the new ruling, it is highly unlikely that due to the nature of his case, multiple killings and heinous premeditated multiple crimes that either a Maryland or Virginia court would convert his life sentences without parole to eligibility for parole—any time soon.
For many others who committed crimes as juveniles and who have served long sentences without the possibility of parole, the Supreme Court’s decision is a glimmer of hope. And for those like Petitioner, Henry Montgomery, who served substantial periods of time and have matured, it should be a way towards parole.
Of those serving life sentences without parole committed while juveniles, today’s Court ruling is a road towards freedom with no guarantees. It is not a guarantee that they will be freed. And even if a court grants them life with the possibility for parole, it does not guarantee their parole.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, member of the Supreme Court and former prosecutor. Her writings appear in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Sun. She frequently appears on Al Jazeera America, BET, CBS, C-Span, MSNBC and Fox 5 DC as a legal analyst.