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SCOTUS Considering Resentencing of D.C. Sniper Lee Malvo

United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC, USA.
By Andrew Leonatti on October 22, 2019

The D.C. Sniper attacks gripped the nation and left residents of the greater Washington, D.C., area living in a constant state of fear. The three-week crime spree in October of 2002, along with several shootings across the country earlier in the year, left 17 people dead and 10 wounded.

In the end, John Allen Muhammad was convicted and executed. His accomplice, then-17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Malvo's sentence was the subject of arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court last week, which could see the now 34-year-old shooter resentenced.

Juveniles Are Not Adults

First sentenced in 2003, Malvo's team is arguing that he deserves resentencing in light of the Court's 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which found that juveniles cannot receive life without parole unless they are found to be irreparably criminal. The 2016 ruling Montgomery v. Louisiana then found that Miller applied to all sentences that came before it.

At the heart of Malvo's appeal was his age at the time of the killings and what we now know about still-developing teenage brains. During the original trials, Malvo's lawyers — and Malvo in his own testimony — presented a case of a boy who suffering from the effects of abandonment and abuse who was easily manipulated by Muhammad.

Those arguments have earned Malvo sympathy from victims and their family members.

A Divided Court

According to SCOTUSblog, the justices will consider two issues in their deliberations: whether Miller only applies to mandatory life-without-parole sentences, and how courts can consider a juvenile's youth when handing down a sentence.

On the first issue, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that the jury in Malvo's Virginia trial had two choices, death or life without parole. So, if Miller does only apply to mandatory life without parole sentences, did the jury really have a choice? And if they didn't have a choice, did jurors really have a chance to consider Malvo's age?

On the second issue, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh pondered including a defendant's age as one of many criteria when deciding a sentence. According to SCOTUSblog, that suggestion drew support from several justices, but Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch was skeptical.

What Next?

Over the next several months, the justices will determine whether to grant or deny Malvo's request for resentencing. They could also send the case back to the lower courts to determine whether the original jury ever really considered Malvo's age.

Either way, Malvo is unlikely to get out of prison anytime soon. This case is only looking at his two life sentences he received in Virginia. He has also been sentenced to life without parole six times in Maryland. Even if he were to get out, other states where Malvo and Muhammad killed people, including Alabama and Louisiana, would likely seek to try him for murder.

However, there are approximately a dozen other inmates in Virginia prisons sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles. The ruling in this case will be of paramount importance to them. If the Court rules in Malvo's favor, it will send a strong signal that it intends to continue reforms meant to give juveniles a second shot at living a productive life.

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