They committed their crimes before they were old enough to vote. Then they were condemned to die in prison.
The United States is the only country in the world that sentences minors to life in prison without parole. And as of 2018, there were approximately 2,100 juvenile lifers behind bars.
But as a result of a series of Supreme Court decisions between 2010 and 2016, that’s started to shift. In advance of the new A&E series “Kids Behind Bars: Life or Parole” (airing April 30 at 10 p.m.) A&E Real Crime looks at some of the juvenile offenders whose landmark cases have changed the law of the land.
Terrance Jamar Graham (Graham v. Florida)
Terrance Graham was 16 years old when he and three teenage acquaintances unsuccessfully tried to rob a barbeque restaurant, beating the manager with a metal bar across the head before fleeing the scene. After pleading guilty to armed robbery with assault or battery in June 2004, Graham was put on probation, which he then violated six months later by participating in a home invasion.
Because the second crime was a parole violation, Graham was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. But in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Graham’s sentence was unconstitutional, stating that life sentences without parole in nonhomicide juvenile cases were in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
At Graham’s resentencing, defense attorney Brian Gowdy argued that mitigating circumstances contributed to Graham’s troubled youth, noting that he was raised in a household with parents who were addicted to crack cocaine.
“The first time he was sentenced he got life, and the judge was under the impression that it was the Brady Bunch—this golden family. And that was just blatantly untrue,” Gowdy tells A&E Real Crime.
Since his imprisonment, Graham has finished his high-school diploma and worked at the prison library.
“The last time I talked to him, he was getting to work outside some, in the open air,” says Gowdy. “He’s kind of shy and reserved. He’s always very polite…very thankful. Very grateful.”
As a result of the overturned life sentence (and subsequent resentencing), in 2013 Graham was given 25 years in prison, with a chance for release after 20 years. Graham will be in his late 30s or early 40s when he regains his freedom. His lawyers are currently seeking to have his sentence further reduced.
Evan Miller (Miller v. Alabama)
Evan Miller was 14 years old when he killed his 52-year-old neighbor Cole Cannon in 2004. The teenager had entered Cannon’s trailer, where he robbed the man of approximately $350 and a baseball card collection and struck him repeatedly with a bat before placing a sheet over his head and declaring, “I am God. I’ve come to take your life.”
Afterward, Miller set the trailer on fire. Cole Cannon died of smoke inhalation.
Miller was sentenced to mandatory life without parole. The “mandatory” part of his sentence was struck down in 2012, when the Supreme Court decided by a 5-4 vote that mandatory life sentences for juvenile cases were unconstitutional.
At his resentencing, Miller apologized to the Cannon’s family, reading from a pre-written statement that he was responsible for “stealing the joy from your lives.” The circuit judge on that case, Mark Craig, was given the opportunity to resentence Miller: to life without parole (again), or to life with a chance of parole after 30 years.
Speaking of Miller’s life and development since his sentencing, Warden David Wise of St. Clair Correctional Facility told the court that Miller hadn’t caused many problems since incarceration, saying his behavior inside has been no worse than a “mischievous child” and that he hadn’t been involved in any prison violence, according to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Miller is housed in an “honor dorm” at St. Clair and has studied welding since his incarceration.
Judge Craig has yet to rule on that case, but because the Supreme Court ruling on Evan Miller only eliminated the “automatic” mechanism on automatic life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, he may still end up with the same sentence—life without parole—guaranteeing that he dies in prison despite the court victory.
Henry Montgomery (Montgomery v. Louisiana)
Henry Montgomery, the central figure of Montgomery v. Louisiana, is in a similar predicament. At 72 years old, Montgomery is now one of the oldest inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary. But he’s been in prison since 1963, when—at the age of 17—he killed East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy Charles Hurt. Hurt had been looking for truants in a Baton Rouge park when he was shot by Montgomery.
In the decades that followed, Montgomery worked in the prison’s silk-screen shop, winning “Employee of the Month” multiple times.
Montgomery’s attorney Mark Plaisance tells A&E Real Crime that Montgomery has “acknowledged that he did something he shouldn’t have done as a teenager and has tried to come to grips with that. He’s become a true model prisoner.”
Montgomery v. Louisiana went to the Supreme Court, where the justices decided 6-3 that the Evan Miller ruling, which eliminated mandatory life-without-parole sentences, applied retroactively to cases like Montgomery’s as well. As a result of that decision, Montgomery has been allowed to go up for parole twice: in 2018, and—after that was denied—again in 2019.
At his first parole hearing, the board voted 2-1 to keep him in prison, with members of the board questioning Montgomery’s seeming lack of interest in remedial classes during his confinement.
Plaisance says that line of questioning was unfair.
“It’s not that he didn’t want to take them,” says Plaisance. “It’s just that he could never get in.” According to Plaisance, that’s because the prison gave admission priority to those prisoners with a known release date, giving life-sentence prisoners fewer opportunities to sign up for popular classes.
At the second parole-board hearing in April 2019, the board voted 2-1 to allow Montgomery’s release. But since prisoners can only be released if the board votes unanimously, that too was a denial.
“At his age, I think Henry would like to just hopefully get out, quietly move somewhere, and live out the rest of his life,” says Plaisance. “What does society gain by keeping Henry Montgomery incarcerated for the rest of his life? In America, we believe in second chances.”