LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — A U.S. Supreme Court ruling issued Monday will allow more than 50 Arkansas inmates serving life sentences without parole for murders they committed as juveniles a chance to one day be free, but how that will happen is still in question.
The court issued its ruling on a case involving Henry Montgomery, imprisoned for more than half a century for the fatal shooting of a Louisiana sheriff's deputy in 1963 when he was 17. The Supreme Court ruling Monday said the ban should be applied retroactively, but it left the door open for how that would be done.
Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney representing some of the inmates who have appealed their sentences, said the next step will be for the courts to resume hearing the petitions of those inmates.
The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in June in a challenge by inmate Ulonzo Gordon that the sentencing ban should be applied retroactively. Gordon's resentencing request was put on hold while Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state court's decision.
Judd Deere, a spokesman for Rutledge, said that petition is still pending at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Deere said it was too early to speculate what the ruling would mean for the Arkansas inmates.
Rosenzweig, who represented Gordon, said he believed the ruling Monday made the Attorney General's petition moot.
"This is obviously good news for us, but we were going to win anyway," he said. "We already won this as a matter of state law in the Gordon case."
The opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court left room for how states would apply the ruling, saying in some states it may be fiscally and procedurally prohibitive to hold new sentencing hearings for every inmate in the same situation, some of whom have been in prison for more than four decades.
"Previously the Arkansas Supreme Court held there would be resentencing proceedings for all these people," Rosenzweig said. "It will be interesting to see how this works out, whether there's an effort to legislatively or otherwise change that to parole eligibility."