Justices' DC sniper case examines teen murderers' sentences
Lee Boyd Malvo, who terrorized the Washington region in 2002 as one-half of a sniper team, is at the center of a case the Supreme Court will hear this fall. But the justices' eventual ruling probably will mean less for him than for a dozen other inmates who, like the now-34-year-old Malvo, were sentenced to life without parole for murders they committed as teens.
At issue for the Supreme Court is whether Malvo should be resentenced in Virginia in light of Supreme Court rulings restricting life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed by juveniles. But the case could also be an opportunity for the Supreme Court, which has recently become more conservative , to put the brakes on what has been a gradual move toward more leniency for juvenile offenders .
Regardless of the case's outcome, Malvo isn't leaving prison anytime soon. He's serving four life-without-parole sentences in Virginia. He was sentenced to another six life life-without-parole terms for shootings in Maryland. But an appeals court ruled last year that Malvo should be resentenced in Virginia, the decision the Supreme Court will review.
The appeals court explained that after Malvo was sentenced, the Supreme Court issued a series of decisions affecting juvenile killers, decisions that required Malvo to be resentenced. But even if the justices were to agree that Malvo should receive new sentences in Virginia and even if he were given something short of life without parole, then he still would have to successfully get his Maryland sentences reduced before having a shot at freedom.
"The reality is that other people have more at stake in this case than he does," said Jody Kent Lavy, the executive director of the Washington-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which has filed a Supreme Court brief supporting Malvo.
Lavy says a dozen other Virginia inmates will be affected by Malvo's case. They include Donte Jones, who was 17 when he fatally shot a convenience store employee during a robbery; Holly Landry, who was 16 when she participated in a robbery in which a man died after being beaten with a hammer, and Jason Clem, who was 16 when he fatally stabbed his boss at the restaurant where he worked as a dishwasher.
Youth advocates have generally been pleased with the direction of the Supreme Court on juvenile sentencing in recent years. The court has recognized that minors should be treated differently from adults, in part because of their lack of maturity and greater ability to change.
In 2005, the court eliminated the death penalty for offenders who were under 18 when they committed crimes. Then, in 2012, the justices said teenage killers couldn't automatically get life sentences with no chance of parole, explaining that punishment should be rare for juveniles. Four years later, the court made the decision retroactive , giving additional prisoners the hope for freedom.
"I have no idea what they're going to do in Malvo, but I would hope that they wouldn't do anything that pulls back from that progression," said Kathleen Wach, whose firm represents Derek Ray Jackson Jr. He was 17 when he killed a man during a convenience store robbery; he will be affected by the Malvo case's outcome.
The justices' 2012 and 2016 rulings provided opportunities for inmates such as Jackson and Malvo, who went back to court to challenge their sentences. Malvo argued he should be resentenced in Virginia because after a jury convicted him of murder but rejected the death penalty, he was automatically given a life-without-parole sentence. But Virginia has argued that Malvo's sentence — and others like it — weren't automatic, and that a judge could have suspended all or part of it, so Malvo shouldn't be resentenced.
"This case is about Lee Malvo, a convicted mass murder who killed Virginians in cold blood and terrorized an entire region. He received a fair trial in which he had a chance to make his case, and he should not have the chance to get out of jail or receive a lighter sentence," said Michael Kelly, a spokesman for the Office of Virginia's Attorney General.
Two lower courts have sided with Malvo, ruling that a court should assess whether he's one of the rare juvenile offenders deserving of a life-without-parole sentence. The Supreme Court will decide if that's right.
Having Malvo as the face of the issue, however, has some advocates worried because his crimes make him unlikely to elicit sympathy from the justices.
Malvo was 17 when he and John Allen Muhammad went on their sniper spree, killing 10 people in the Washington area. They picked off victims going about their daily business: shopping, getting gas and mowing the lawn. Muhammad, who was 41 at the time of the shootings, was sentenced to death and executed in 2009.
Lawyer Joshua Toll, who represents a client affected by Malvo's case, acknowledged that lawyers in his position wish a different defendant were before the justices. Toll wants his client, David Sanchez Jr., to be resentenced and said that after two decades in prison he's a different person from the 17-year-old who fatally shot a motorcyclist while under the influence of alcohol and LSD. He shouldn't spend the rest of his life in jail, Toll said.
"He deserves the chance to at least make the case," he said.
The case is Mathena v. Malvo, 18-217 .