WASHINGTON—”Beltway sniper” co-defendant Lee Boyd Malvo’s Virginia-imposed sentence of life without the possibility of parole should be reconsidered because he was only 17 years at the time of the murders and the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on sentencing young people has since changed, his lawyer told the high court.
The Trump administration sided with Virginia in opposing the request for resentencing. Virginia argued in a brief that was filed with the court last year that Malvo “committed one of the most notorious strings of terrorist acts in modern American history.”
Malvo, now 34, formed a team with John Allen Muhammad to commit 10 murders in a killing spree that lasted from Sept. 5 to Oct. 22, 2002. They shot victims at various locations from a rolling sniper’s nest they created by cutting a hole in the trunk of a car. In total, they reportedly shot at least 22 people around the nation, 14 of whom died, including the 10 Washington-area victims.
Born John Allen Williams, Muhammad was an expert marksman who converted to Islam and joined the radical group, Nation of Islam. A quarter-century older than Malvo, Muhammad illegally brought Malvo into the United States from Jamaica.
At Muhammad’s 2006 trial, Malvo said Muhammad turned him into “a monster.” Malvo admitted to shooting three people and serving as a “spotter” in other shootings. Malvo was sentenced by a Virginia court in 2004.
The next year, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that executing individuals who were under 18 at the time they committed their crimes violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Muhammad was executed in 2009.
Oral arguments on Oct. 16 were largely dominated by discussions of two key Supreme Court precedents, known as Miller v. Alabama (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016).
In Miller v. Alabama, the court held that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”
In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court held the Miller ruling “announced a substantive rule of constitutional law” that must be given “retroactive effect.”
A district court refused to review Malvo’s sentence, and he appealed. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to the district court for reconsideration. The district court then vacated all of Malvo’s life sentences in Virginia and ordered him resentenced and the 4th Circuit upheld that ruling.
The circuit court found that the ruling in Montgomery confirmed that “a sentencing judge … violates Miller’s rule any time it imposes a discretionary life-without-parole sentence on a juvenile homicide offender without first concluding that the offender’s ‘crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,’ as distinct from ‘the transient immaturity of youth.’”
Virginia appealed and the Supreme Court took the case. Malvo also is appealing the life imprisonment without the possibility of parole sentences imposed on him in Maryland.
At the hearing, Justice Samuel Alito challenged Malvo’s attorney, Danielle Spinelli.
“So, if he can demonstrate, as a result of good behavior in prison, for example, that he has been rehabilitated, then he must be released?” he asked.
“No. No, absolutely not,” Spinelli said. Even with new hearings, “there are occasions when juvenile offenders are resentenced to life without parole. Even if he were given parole eligibility, that would not mean that he would be released.”
Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens argued the Supreme Court’s 2012 and 2016 rulings didn’t entitle Malvo to a new sentencing 15 years after his original sentencing and that such a hearing would be cruel to the victims and their loved ones.
“Malvo’s victims were already required to endure one full trial and sentencing hearing more than a decade ago, and the court should not lightly ask them to go through another, particularly given that the original sentencing fully complied with then-controlling constitutional restrictions,” Heytens said.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were skeptical of the state’s position.
“Nobody’s really considered whether he’s immature,” Breyer said, referring to Malvo.
“The jury had only two choices: death or life without parole,” Ginsburg said. “And nobody seemed to have appreciated at the time of Malvo’s convictions that there was any discretion.”
Justice Elena Kagan, who authored the majority opinion in Miller v. Alabama, said the handing down of mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders wasn’t allowed.
“It’s a 30-page opinion, and it can be summarized in two words, which is that ‘youth matters,’ and that you have to consider youth in making these sorts of sentencing determinations,” Kagan said.