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D.C. Sniper Case Taken Off the Table for Supreme Court Review

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA - OCTOBER 22:  Sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo (C) is escorted by deputies as he is brought into court to be identified by a witness during the murder trial in courtroom 10 at the Virginia Beach Circuit Court October 22, 2003 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Muhammad has decided not to represent himself in court and to turn his defense back to his attorneys.  (Photo by Davis Turner-Pool/Getty Images)
By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

Lee Boyd Malvo was 17 when he and 41-year-old John Allen Muhammed were arrested for murder in connection to the "D.C. Sniper" killings of 2002. The two men terrorized residents of the D.C. metropolitan area for three weeks before they were caught - killing ten and critically injuring three. 

The shootings were random, swift, and carried out with bone-chilling precision. When police captured Malvo and Muhammed, they discovered the shooters had modified the trunk of a Chevrolet Caprice to serve as a "rolling sniper's nest."

Muhammed was sentenced to death, while Malvo received six consecutive life sentences without parole. But, a change in state law might give Malvo a chance to seek parole without the Supreme Court weigh-in initially requested by the state of Virginia.

New State Law Preempts Supreme Court Decision

Following a lower court ruling that Malvo should be re-sentenced in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama, Virginia petitioned for SCOTUS review. The Court heard oral arguments in October 2019, with some predicting that Justice Kavanaugh would be the pivotal vote.

But, a new law enacted in Virginia this week allows those sentenced to life without parole an opportunity to ask for release after 20 years - if they were under 18 at the time of the offense. After the change was signed into law by Governor Ralph Northam, both sides of Malvo's case wrote to SCOTUS requesting dismissal.

The Impact of Miller

In a nutshell, Miller held that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violated 8th Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The majority reasoned that children are "constitutionally different" from adults for the purposes of sentencing. Children are more vulnerable to outside pressures and negative influences, the Court found, especially from family and their peers.

The decision in Miller was a close one, a 5-4 split with dissents by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Alito, and Justice Thomas. The Chief Justice argued that there was nothing "unusual" about the punishments at issue:

"Put simply, if a 17–year–old is convicted of deliberately murdering an innocent victim, it is not 'unusual' for the murderer to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole."

Moreover, there's the question of whether Miller applies to Malvo's case at all since his sentence was not the result of a mandatory guideline. At oral arguments, Justice Alito challenged the assertion by Malvo's counsel that it also applied to other juveniles given life without parole. However, Justice Ginsburg pointed out that the jury in Malvo's case was given two choices: the death penalty, or life without the possibility of parole.

For now, it seems, we won't know the current Court's view on sentencing for juveniles. But, since Malvo - now 34 - also received a life sentence in Maryland, he's likely not going anywhere any time soon.

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