Montgomery v. Louisiana: Retroactivity and Reinforcement

February 03, 2016   |   Eric Zogry

On January 26, 2016 the United States Supreme Court determined in Montgomery v. Louisiana 577 U.S. ___ (2016) that the decision of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___ (2012) applies retroactively to juveniles who are currently serving life without parole sentences. Miller held that, even for convictions of first-degree murder, mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juveniles (i.e., defendants who were under the age of 18 at the time of the offense). The result of this decision was that many states, including North Carolina,1 changed their statutes to create an opportunity for parole for juveniles serving life sentences. When Miller was first handed down, it was unclear from the Court’s decision whether the holding could be applied retroactively to defendants currently serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole. Montgomery clarified that the Miller decision can be applied retroactively and may lead to the review of sentences for former juveniles currently incarcerated under life sentences in North Carolina and around the country.

Beyond the direct impact of Montgomery, attorneys should take note of the Supreme Court’s consistent theme of adolescent development and criminal culpability. The decision in Montgomery marks the fifth time in ten years the Court has declared “kids are different.”2 Specifically in Montgomery Justice Kennedy contrasts “transient immaturity” to “irreparable corruption,” reinforcing the idea that criminal responsibility for the accused under 18 should be considered on an individual basis.

While Montgomery, Miller, Graham and Roper focus on punishment, the same analysis can be applied further in juvenile and criminal proceedings. Both juvenile and adult defenders should make this contrast a go-to strategy in their playbook. For any clients under the age of 18, defenders should consider how developmental advocacy strengthens their case. For example, does your client’s age and/or development impact capacity to proceed in the case? Is there a specific intent element to the charge that is vitiated due to a lack of ability to form the intent? How is incarceration really “getting the intention” of the youth, while imprinting permanent, negative physical and emotional experiences?

For more information on Montgomery and its potential impact, please see the following link.

1 N.C.G.S. 15A-1340.19A, -1340.19B, -1340.19C
2 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (eliminating the death penalty for juveniles), Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. ___ (2010) (eliminating life without parole for non-homicides for juveniles), J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. ___ (2011) (age is a factor in determining whether a juvenile is “in custody” under Miranda), Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___ (2012)

Eric Zogry is the ‎Juvenile Defender at Office of the Juvenile Defender, Office of Indigent Defense Services in Raleigh. To contact Eric Zogry and learn more about the Office of the Juvenile Defender visit