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Ruling Likely to Spare Va. Inmate

Malvo's Prospects Are Also Affected

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page A08

Shermaine A. Johnson's attorney called him at a state prison in Sussex County yesterday with news that relatively few men on Virginia's death row ever get to hear: His life would be spared.

"He was very relieved," said Robert E. Lee, an attorney with the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center.

Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said it would be pointless to try sniper Lee Boyd Malvo again in light of the decision. (Ana Pimsler -- Potomac News Via AP)

Yesterday's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that it is unconstitutional to execute people who committed murder as juveniles affects just one of the 23 death row inmates in Virginia -- Johnson.

But officials said Johnson would stay on death row until the state attorney general reviewed the Supreme Court decision.

In Virginia, which has executed more criminals than any other state except Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the Supreme Court ruling brought swift reactions. Maryland does not allow the execution of anyone younger than 18, and the District does not have a death penalty.

Within hours of the decision, Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert announced that it would be a "waste of time and resources" to try convicted sniper Lee Boyd Malvo again because he cannot be executed. Malvo was 17 at the time of the sniper shootings and will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Virginia's interim attorney general, Judith W. Jagdmann, said it is "unfortunate that five justices of the United States Supreme Court substituted their judgment for the will of the people of Virginia."

Attorneys for men who have been executed by injection for crimes they committed as minors were alternately jubilant that their position had been adopted by a majority of justices and saddened at the timing.

In recent years, Virginia has executed three men who were minors when they killed. In October 1998, Dwayne Allen Wright, who was 17 when he fatally shot an Annandale mother of three, received a lethal injection and became the first Virginia inmate since 1924 to be executed for a crime committed as a minor. He was 26.

In the span of three days in 2000, Virginia executed two men convicted of murders committed when they were juveniles. Douglas Christopher Thomas was 17 when he shot his girlfriend's parents as they slept in Middlesex County. Steve Roach was 17 when he shot his neighbor in her home in Stanardsville. Thomas was 26 when he was executed; Roach was 23.

"I'm thrilled that the court came to the conclusion that I and, unfortunately, my late client had long hoped would be the result," said Steven M. Schneebaum, who represented Roach.

Johnson, 27, is the prisoner most directly affected by the ruling.

In 1994, he was 16, living with his grandmother in New York but spending the summer with relatives and friends in Virginia. That summer, the body of Hope Denise Hall, a 22-year-old television producer, was found in her Petersburg apartment. She had been raped and stabbed 15 times. Johnson was identified as her assailant through DNA taken after he was convicted of two unrelated rapes. He always denied killing Hall.

Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said Johnson will not be moved until the attorney general's office advises the department of its legal obligations. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said the office is reviewing the decision and will determine Johnson's status.

Lee, Johnson's attorney, said he expects Johnson's death sentence to be vacated and his case remanded to the Virginia Supreme Court.

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