Lives Hang in Limbo: SCOTUS to Hear Case on Whether Ruling Prohibiting Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles Applies Retroactively

April 13, 2015
By Allison B. Kingsmill, Senior Associate

On March 23, 2015, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Montgomery v. Louisiana to decide whether its ruling in Miller v. Alabama, prohibiting mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, applies retroactively—that is, to inmates convicted before the decision was issued.[1]

In Montgomery, Henry Montgomery was convicted of murdering a deputy sheriff when he was 17 years old and was automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole as required by Louisiana law.[2] Consequently, Montgomery was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison without any consideration of his youth, the circumstances of the crime, or any other mitigating facts.[3] In his petition to the Supreme Court, Montgomery claims that his sentence subjects him to cruel and unusual punishment, which violates the Eighth Amendment and the previous Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama.[4]

In Miller, the Supreme Court reviewed the cases of two 14 year olds who were convicted of murder and sentenced to statutorily mandated punishments of life without parole.[5] The Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.[6] The Court emphasized that “[m]andatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”[7] Without considering the mitigating facts relevant to youth, the Court concluded that “such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment.”[8] As a result, the Court did not categorically bar juvenile life sentences without parole but indicated that “occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”[9]

In light of the Miller decision, Montgomery filed a motion to correct his illegal sentence, arguing that he is entitled to a new sentencing hearing with the possibility of parole.[10] However, the state district court denied Montgomery’s motion.[11] Moreover, the Louisiana Supreme Court denied Montgomery’s writ application, refusing to apply Miller retroactively.[12]

The United States Supreme Court has not decided whether to apply Miller retroactively.[13] As a result, following Miller, the retroactivity issue has divided state and federal courts across the country.[14] The question before the Court in Montgomery is whether Miller applies retroactively to defendants who received statutorily mandated life-without-parole sentences before the Miller decision was handed down.[15] Most state courts, as well as six federal circuit courts, have applied Miller retroactively, interpreting it as a substantive rule banning mandatory life sentences for juveniles.[16] In contrast, only four states—Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania—have ruled against retroactivity, viewing Miller as merely an announcement of a new procedural rule.[17]

In determining the retroactivity of Supreme Court decisions, courts apply the standards established by Teague v. Lane.[18] In Teague, the Court held that a new rule will be applied retroactively if (1) it places “certain kinds of primary, private individual conduct beyond the power of the criminal law-making authority to proscribe” or (2) creates a procedure “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”[19] Courts holding in favor of retroactivity have concluded that Miller falls within Teague’s first exception, because it “explicitly forecloses the imposition of a certain category of punishment—mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole—on a specific class of defendants: those individuals under the age of 18 when they commit the crime of murder.”[20]

On the other hand, courts ruling against retroactivity have reasoned that Miller mandated only that a court consider an offender’s youth before imposing a particular penalty and therefore “simply altered the range of permissible methods for determining whether a juvenile could be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.”[21]

Amidst the division among states and the need for uniformity, the United States Supreme Court granted review of Montgomery’s case and thereby decided to end the uncertainty of Miller’s application.[22] The Supreme Court originally agreed in December 2014 to consider the issue of retroactivity in another Louisiana case, Toca v. Louisiana.[23] Similar to Montgomery, George Toca received a mandatory-life-without-parole sentence when he was a juvenile.[24] However, after years of incarceration, Toca accepted a plea deal with prosecutors and was released from prison.[25] Consequently, his petition became moot before the Supreme Court and was automatically dismissed.[26]

Montgomery and Toca’s petitions represent a recurring issue before the Supreme Court and present a critical question for juvenile offenders already sentenced to life without parole: Should they be resentenced?[27] Prisoners sentenced to life as juveniles receive new sentencing hearings across the nation, while convicted juveniles like Montgomery remain condemned to spend the rest of their lives in prison.[28] As a result, whether Miller should be applied retroactively is an important question that must be resolved as soon as possible.[29]

Whether the Court will apply Miller retroactively remains uncertain.[30] However, if the Court finds in favor of retroactivity, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania will be most heavily impacted, as they will have to review all previously mandated life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders.[31]


[1] Lyle Denniston, Court to Try Again on Juveniles’ Life Sentences, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 23, 2015, 4:47 PM),, archived at

[2] State v. Montgomery, 242 So. 2d 818 (La. 1970).

[3] See Montgomery v. Louisiana, 141 So. 3d 264 (La. 2014), petition for cert. filed, 83 U.S.L.W. 3149 (U.S. Sept. 5, 2014) (No. 14-280).

[4] Id.

[5] Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 2460 (2012).

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 2468.

[8] Id. at 2469.

[9] Id.

[10] Montgomery v. Louisiana, 141 So. 3d 264 (La. 2014), petition for cert. filed, 83 U.S.L.W. 3149 (U.S. Sept. 5, 2014) (No. 14-280).

[11] Id.

[12] State v. Montgomery, 140 So. 3d 264 (La. 2014).

[13] See Petition for Writ of Certiorari at 2-3, Toca, 135 S. Ct. 1197 (2014) (No. 14-6381).

[14] See Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 5.

[17] See People v. Carp, 852 N.W.2d 801, 849 (Mich. 2014); State v. Tate, 130 So. 3d 829, 844 (La. 2013); Chambers v. State, 831 N.W.2d 311, 331 (Minn. 2013); Commonwealth v. Cunningham, 81 A.3d 1, 10 (Pa. 2013).

[18] See generally Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989).

[19] Id. at 290.

[20] Diatchenko v. Dist. Att’y Suffolk Cnty., 1 N.E.3d 270, 281 (Mass. 2013).

[21] Tate, 130 So. 3d at 837.

[22] See supra note 1.

[23] See Toca v. Louisiana, 141 So. 3d 265, cert. granted in part, 83 U.S.L.W. 3365 (U.S. Dec. 12, 2014), subsequently dismissed, 83 U.S.L.W. 3647(U.S. Feb. 3, 2015) (No. 14–6381).

[24] Jonathan Kaminsky, George Toca Freed From Louisiana Prison After 30 Years, Huff. Post Crime (Jan. 29, 2015),, archived at

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. See supra note 1.

[28] See Montgomery v. Louisiana, 141 So. 3d 264 (La. 2014), petition for cert. filed, 83 U.S.L.W. 3149 (U.S. Sept. 5, 2014) (No. 14-280).

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.