Justices to Consider Life-Without-Parole Sentences in D.C. Sniper Case

October 15, 2019 by Dan McCue
The stolen Bushmaster XM-15 rifle used by Muhammad and Malvo during their attacks. (Photo courtesy the FBI)

WASHINGTON – Do a pair of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court require the resentencing of Lee Boyd Malvo, the surviving assailant in the D.C. sniper case?

That’s the question the justices will consider when it convenes Wednesday to hear oral arguments in the case Mathena v. Malvo.

For three weeks in October 2002, Malvo, who was 17 at the time, and John Allen Muhammad, terrorized the Washington, D.C. area by carrying out a series of coordinated shootings in the states of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

The duo randomly shot and killed 12 people and severely injured six others before being arrested on October 24, 2002, after they were found, sleeping, at a rest stop near Myersville, Maryland.

It was later determined the Washington shootings were just the latest in a multi-state murder and robbery spree.

Muhammad was sentenced to death and died by lethal injection in November 2009. Malvo, meanwhile, was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences without parole.

Three years later, in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for defendants who were under the age of 18 when they committed their crimes violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court ruled that Miller’s ban on life-without-parole sentences applies retroactively to convictions that had become final before Miller was decided.

In the wake of the court’s decision in Miller, Malvo went to federal district court in Virginia, seeking a ruling that his sentences were unconstitutional.

The district court agreed, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision, holding that while Malvo’s crimes were “the most heinous, random acts of premeditated violence conceivable,” the jury and judge at his trial had not considered whether a less severe sentence might be more appropriate in light of his youth.

Virginia then petitioned the High Court take the case. The state argues Miller dealt only with mandatory life-without-parole sentences. It further argues that Montgomery only made the court’s limited ruling in Miller retroactive.

The state maintains nothing in the court’s two rulings apply in the Malvo case.

It goes on to argue that if the justices also want to declare that non mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, they should do so in a case involving a direct appeal of a sentence, and not in the current case.

Attorneys for Malvo argue that the intent of Miller and Montgomery are clear, and that if Virginia’s position prevails, juries in the state will never have to consider a juvenile offender’s youth before imposing life without parole.

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