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My 2021 Highlight: Speaking with Henry Montgomery on ICAN National Zoom Call

Anthony Gomez, Paralegal Dec. 20, 2021

It was almost 6PM on Friday, November 19, 2021, and I had just picked up a cheeseburger, fries, and an orange fountain soda from DQ’s. I’d been working from home all day and wanted to get on the scheduled Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network’s (“ICAN”) 2021 national zoom call. I was on my phone in my car enjoying some fresh air. I was excited because we’d gotten an email announcing that a special guest would be on the call. I ate my meal and logged on before the official start of the call. ICAN Director Eddie Ellis was already there with Jody Kent Lavy, Co-Executive Director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY). Then our special guest came on, Henry Montgomery.

Henry had just been paroled by the state of Louisiana two days earlier in a nationally televised parole hearing after 57 years in prison. It is a period of imprisonment that most people could never fathom. To put it into perspective, President John F. Kennedy was in office when Henry was sent to prison.

In 1963, Henry, who is black, was convicted of killing a white, East Baton Rouge deputy only weeks after Henry’s 17th birthday. The Louisiana state supreme court overturned Henry’s conviction and sentence in 1966 because of the prejudicial atmosphere surrounding his trial. Dozens of Black men were arrested in the wake of the killing and there were reports of cross burnings leading up to his trial. After being found guilty on retrial, he was sentenced to mandatory life without parole, meaning that the judge did not have the discretion to impose a lesser sentence even if he found reasons to.

In 2012, almost a half century later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that imposing mandatory life-without-parole sentences on children violates the 8th Amendment’s U.S. Constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, many states refused to apply the new Miller ruling to juveniles who had already been sentenced. Those states, including Louisiana, argued that Miller only applied to future cases, not past one.

Henry Montgomery fought that issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in the 2016 landmark ruling Montgomery v. Louisiana. It was Henry Montgomery’s case where the U.S. Supreme Court held that states were required to apply the ban on mandatory life sentences to all juvenile offenders. The Court held that a life sentence is unconstitutional for “juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth” and that, therefore, “it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive [a life] sentence.”

It was an honor for me to see and get a chance to express my thoughts, feelings, and well wishes to Henry. His story of being incarcerated 57 years, his plight over the years fighting for a second chance, and the photo of his smile as Henry walked out of prison just days ago touched me in a special way.

I personally owe a deep debt of gratitude to Henry. For most of us “juvenile lifers,” our second chance came about in large part due to changes in state law brought about by Henry’s U.S. Supreme Court case. I am a Virginia juvenile lifer myself. I was granted parole in 2020 after nearly 24 years of incarceration, under a new law that was passed due to the advocacy work of CFSY and ICAN and the stories of individuals like Henry. I work as a paralegal for Bryan Jones, the Charlottesville attorney who helped me attain my freedom.

Some of us got the opportunity during the call to express to Henry the impact his case and story has had on our lives. We fought back tears of joy mixed with a sort of sadness. After 57 years of imprisonment because of barbaric policies directed at juvenile offenders, Henry is just now starting his life in society as an adult for the first time, at age 75. It’s morally wrong. Juvenile lifers suffer more severe punishments than adults who receive life sentences. A 16 year old who is sentenced to life, will serve have served 54 years by the time he reaches his 70th birthday. A 35 year old adult who is life sentenced to life will have served only 35 years on their 70th birthday.

I am so happy that Henry has this chance, and all of us on the call wanted him to know that he has an army of supporters behind him, cheering him on. I was happy to point out that out after we cheered when he joined the zoom call.

By the way, in answer to the question what’s the first thing he ate when he got out, Henry said, “A cheeseburger and an orange soda.” That is exactly what I had just eaten before joining the call. My man, Henry! We were also assured by his team, the great folks at the Parole Project in Louisiana, that it wasn’t any ole regular cheeseburger, either.

ICAN is an organization of formerly incarcerated men and women who were sent to prison as children with extreme or life sentences. I underscore formerly because thanks to the work of ICAN and CFSY (of which ICAN is a project), there are over 800 of us in the U.S. who were given second chances out of the nearly 2,500 juveniles who received extreme sentences as youthful offenders. Towards the end of each year, these great advocacy organizations host a convening highlighting work that’s been done towards abolishing the practice of sentencing children to die in prison in America and just wrapping up the year on a good note.

I’ve only been home a little over a year for the first time since my teens. Each day has been an amazing experience as I work with Mr. Jones to fight for our client’s rights, tailoring a defense best suited for them, and securing the best possible outcome for their cases. Between vacation, weekends, and my time after work, I’ve seen many places, enjoyed different foods, and spent time with family and friends. I would be hard pressed to pinpoint a particular highlight for the year. But seeing my friend Henry make parole in a nationally televised hearing and released the same day, and then have him join us at ICAN’s 2021 national zoom call where we had the opportunity to celebrate him easily takes the cake.