The Supreme Court on Monday said it will consider whether Lee Boyd Malvo, the teenage half of the Beltway snipers who terrorized the Washington region 16 years ago, may challenge his sentence of life in prison without parole.
Malvo, 34, was a 17-year-old when he and John Allen Muhammad committed what Virginia officials called “one of the most notorious strings of terrorist acts in modern American history.” Between Sept. 5 and Oct. 22, 2002, Muhammad and Malvo killed 10 people and wounded others in sniper attacks in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Muhammad was executed in 2009, but Malvo received sentences of life without parole in Virginia and Maryland.
The Supreme Court’s actions announced Monday involve the Virginia sentences and will be heard in the term that starts in October.
After a 2003 trial in which Malvo was convicted of shooting FBI analyst Linda Franklin outside a Fairfax County Home Depot store, a jury decided against the death penalty. Instead, it recommended life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Since then, the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on juvenile murderers has changed. It said the death penalty was off-limits for juveniles, and in 2012 said that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional for those under 18.
A divided court found that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” In sentencing defendants 17 and younger, judges must now consider whether a juvenile’s crime reflects “irreparable corruption” or simply “the transient immaturity of youth.”
The court has also said the rulings are retroactive.
Some courts have interpreted the rulings to mean that mandatory life without parole laws are unconstitutional, but that those that offer a judge discretion are not. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled against Malvo.
But a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond said it was clear Malvo deserved a new sentencing: No judge ever considered whether Malvo’s crime represented “irreparable corruption.”
The unanimous panel said that the Beltway shootings “were the most heinous, random acts of premeditated violence conceivable, destroying lives and families and terrorizing the entire Washington, D.C., metropolitan area for over six weeks, instilling mortal fear daily in the citizens of that community.”
But, “Malvo was 17 years old when he committed the murders, and he now has the retroactive benefit of new constitutional rules that treat juveniles differently for sentencing,” the judges concluded.
The Virginia Supreme Court had found the commonwealth’s laws were not incompatible with the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings because “Virginia law does not preclude a sentencing court from considering mitigating circumstances, whether they be age or anything else.”
There are similar splits around the country.
Malvo’s Maryland sentences were upheld in 2017. A state court judge said that the sentencing judge had specifically taken into account Malvo’s age and other mitigating factors — Malvo was brought illegally into the country by Muhammad, who was 25 years his senior and masterminded the attacks — in deciding he deserved life imprisonment.
That decision is on appeal to Maryland’s highest court. In addition, Malvo has challenged his sentences in federal court in Maryland.
The Supreme Court case is Mathena v. Malvo .