John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo murdered 17 people and wounded another ten during a series of sniper attacks in 2002. The DC Snipers shot most of their victims in the national capital area, and both were convicted of homicides in Virginia and Maryland. Muhammad was executed by Virginia authorities in 2009, but Malvo was only 17 years old when he committed the killings, and that’s why his case is now being argued at the Supreme Court.
Best Range of Available Penalties
That Malvo would share the fate of his co-conspirator was quite possible, and one of the reasons Virginia was prioritized as a jurisdiction in which to prosecute – because authorities there were more likely to put him to death than other jurisdictions. While most of the murders were committed in Maryland, that state was not first in line to prosecute.
As The Baltimore Sun reported, “Instead, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft sent the cases to Virginia, saying it offered ‘the best law, the best facts and the best range of available penalties.’” That best range meant execution, as Maryland law did not allow the death penalty for those who were minors when they committed their crimes. Virginia prosecutors were so interested in ensuring that Malvo received the harshest punishment possible – either a death sentence or life imprisonment – they waited to prosecute while the issue was heard at the Supreme Court.
SCOTUS ruled 5-4 in the 2005 Roper v Simmons case that the Eighth Amendment “forbids imposition of the death penalty” for crimes committed when under age 18. Malvo could not be put to death; he would spend the rest of his life behind bars. But will he, after all?
Second Bite of the Apple
Mr. Malvo caught another break in 2012. The Supreme Court ruled in Miller v Alabama that life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed under the age of 18 were unconstitutional. Montgomery v Louisiana later reinforced this decision. As Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog writes:
“[M]andatory life-without-parole sentences for defendants who were under the age of 18 when they committed their crimes violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court ruled that Miller’s ban on life-without-parole sentences applies retroactively to convictions that had become final before Miller was decided.”
Lee Boyd Malvo’s claim is that the combination of rulings in the Montgomery and Miller cases mean his life sentence is unconstitutional. The justices will have to decide how broad the rule in Montgomery will be applied. A chief outstanding question is whether the prohibition is only for mandatory sentences, or if discretionary sentencing is included. Mr. Malvo’s life sentence, in this case, was not mandated by law, and Virginia officials claim this makes it permissible given the Court’s rulings.
While we wait for the justices to render their decision, there is another possibility to contemplate. Many decisions in this area were made with bare 5-4 majorities, and the composition of the Court has changed significantly. With that in mind, we could very well see a new landmark decision reversing some of the earlier rulings.