The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to review a lower court ruling that requires a new sentencing hearing for Lee Boyd Malvo, one of two snipers who terrorized the Washington, D.C area in 2002.
Malvo and a man who was 25 years older, John Allen Muhammad, were responsible for a series of shootings that killed 10 people and seriously wounded six others. Muhammad received the death penalty and was executed in 2009. Malvo was sentenced to life in prison.
Malvo is challenging two life sentence imposed by Virginia for the murders of Linda Franklin and Kenneth Bridges and the attempted murder of Caroline Seawell. He claimed that the sentences were unconstitutional because he was a juvenile — 17 years old — at the time the crimes were committed.
He cited a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down mandatory life sentences for juveniles. In 2016, the Supreme Court said its ruling was retroactive, applying to sentences imposed earlier. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond agreed that he should be re-sentenced. New constitutional rules treat juveniles differently for sentencing, the appeals court said.
Virginia defends Malvo's punishment. Toby Heytens, the state's solicitor general, argued in court papers that there's a difference between mandatory life sentences for juveniles, which the court struck down in its 2012 ruling, and discretionary life sentences imposed by juries, such as the punishment imposed in Malvo's case.
The state also says that when the Supreme Court announces a new rule and makes it retroactive, it should apply only to cases working their way through the legal system at the time, not to sentences that are appealed later, such as Malvo's. Such a rule, the state argues, would promote finality in the courts.
But Malvo's lawyers say little about Malvo's sentence was discretionary, because the jury was forced to choose between only two possible sentences — death or life without parole. They say the Supreme Court intended life sentences for juveniles to be imposed only for "the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption."
The Supreme Court said in its prior rulings that juveniles are less responsible for their acts because they lack maturity and are more susceptible to outside pressures. Such was the case with Malvo, his lawyers say, physically abused during his childhood and later under the control of Muhammad, who became became a surrogate father.
Malvo, who is now 34, is also challenging life without parole sentences he received for the sniper shootings in Maryland. Those cases are pending in the lower courts.
The Supreme Court will hear the Virginia case during its next term, which begins in October. For now, Malvo remains in prison and has not yet been re-sentenced.