Release Date:  October 14, 2019
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Oral argument in Mathena v. Malvo set for Wednesday

The U. S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument Wednesday in its review of a 2018 Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling which overturned the four life sentences given to Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the notorious D.C. snipers.

The lower court held that U. S. Supreme Court decisions, announced in the years following Malvo’s conviction and sentencing, prohibit a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for defendants under the age of 18, with narrow exceptions. The court determined that because the exceptions had not been proven in Malvo’s case his sentence was invalid.

The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has joined Mathena v. Malvo in support of the state of Virginia to encourage a decision overturning the lower court and reinstating Malvo’s sentence.

In the Fall of 2002, the then 17-year-old Malvo and his adult accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, terrorized the Washington metropolitan area, indiscriminately murdering 12 people and critically injuring 6 others. The killing began on September 5, 2002, when Malvo ran up to a man’s car in Clinton, Maryland, shot him six times, then stole his laptop and $3,500 cash. Ten days later Malvo shot a man closing a liquor store in Clinton. On September 21, Muhammad used a long-range rifle to shoot two women closing a liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama. Malvo was seen going through the victims’ purses after they were shot. Two days later, Muhammad used the same rifle to shoot and kill a woman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, just before Malvo was seen fleeing with her purse. Beginning on October 2, Muhammad and Malvo began a 20-day shooting spree in the D.C. area, indiscriminately selecting 13 victims in parking lots, gas stations, or walking down the street, killing 10. On October 3, the pair killed 5 people in one day. On October 7, they shot and critically injured a 13-year-old boy walking to school. Following his arrest, Malvo admitted to shooting the boy and also shooting and killing a bus driver on October 22, who was their last victim.

On October 24, Malvo and Muhammad were found sleeping in their car at a Maryland rest area, along with the long-range rifle used in the murders and the laptop stolen by Malvo on September 5. Both were initially tried in Virginia and both were convicted on overwhelming evidence of aggravated murder in 2003. Malvo’s defense was that he was young and impressionable and that Muhammad had taken control of him. Muhammad received a death sentence, and Malvo, who was eligible for a death sentence, received two LWOP terms. Malvo also pled guilty to murders committed in another Virginia county and was sentenced to two additional LWOP terms. On November 10, 2009, Muhammad was executed in Virginia by lethal injection.

Following Malvo’s convictions and sentencing, the U. S. Supreme Court issued two rulings regarding the sentencing of juvenile murderers. In Miller v. Alabama, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile homicide offenders from receiving “mandatory life-without-parole sentences” and that, before sentencing such an offender to life without parole, the sentencing court must first consider the “offender’s youth and attendant characteristics.” Malvo challenged his sentence, arguing that this change should apply retroactively to his case. A district judge denied that claim, but while Malvo was awaiting a decision on appeal, the Supreme Court announced its ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that Miller did apply retroactively. Writing for the Court, Justice Kennedy went further, emphasizing, “Because Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but ‘ “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,” ’ it rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for ‘a class of defendants because of their status’—that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth.”

Based upon the Montgomery ruling, on June 21, 2018, the Fourth Circuit held that because the sentencing courts in Malvo’s case failed to consider whether his crimes reflect “permanent incorrigibility” or instead “reflect the transient immaturity of youth,” his sentence must be overturned.

In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, Foundation Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton argues that the Miller and Montgomery cases should be limited to their core holdings that life-without-parole sentencing cannot be mandatory for murderers under the age of 18. The brief notes in Malvo’s case the LWOP sentence was not mandatory because the judge had the discretion to give the murderer a shorter sentence. We also argue that the murders Malvo committed and helped commit, certainly met Justice Kennedy’s “irreparable corruption” exception.

“Neither the Miller or Montgomery rulings issued a blanket prohibition of LWOP sentences for 17-year-old murderers, allowing judges or juries the ability to give that sentence to the very worst murderers,” said Stapleton. “Malvo easily fits that category.”

CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.