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The D.C. Sniper Case Moves to the Supreme Court, Reopening Questions About Juvenile Sentencing

The United States Supreme Court announced Monday that it will take on the case of the 17-year-old shooter involved in the 2002 Beltway sniper killings.

Lee Boyd Malvo, now 34, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for his role in the sniper attacks that killed 10 people and injured three others between September 5th and October 22nd, 2002, in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Malvo worked with John Allen Muhammad, who was 41 at the time of the shootings and who brought Malvo into the country illegally. Muhammed was sentenced to death and executed in 2009.

The Supreme Court will weigh whether Malvo should have a lessened sentence for his role in this crime that he took part in when he was a minor. Since 2005, a series of Supreme Court cases have altered the handling of crimes committed by teenagers:

  • That year, the court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that juveniles can't be sentenced to death.
  • In 2010, the court ruled in Graham v. Florida that juveniles can't be sentenced to life without parole unless they are convicted of homicide.
  • In 2012, the court ruled in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs that it is unconstitutional to issue a mandatory juvenile life without parole sentence, regardless of the crime, because doing so violates the Eighth Amendment.
  • In 2016, the Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller ruling applies retroactively in cases where youth were sentenced before these decisions, and that states can permit parole hearings to address such sentences rather than re-sentencing the approximately 2,100 individuals who had been sentenced mandatorily to life without parole.

In his 2015 story "Five Studies: Why Kids Who Kill Are Getting a Second Chance," Ben DeJarnette reported for Pacific Standard on the neuroscience regarding teenagers' limited culpability:

In his Roper v. Simmons dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia took a swipe at the American Psychological Association for supporting the juvenile death penalty ban. His beef: If juveniles are responsible enough to make their own abortion decisions (as the APA argued in Hodgson v. Minnesota), mustn't they also be responsible enough to be held accountable for murder?

Studies by researchers at the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychology suggest it's not that simple. In the presence of certain emotional cues (think peer pressure), adolescents demonstrated less impulse control than both children and adults. But subtract those emotional cues and teens performed no differently. Echoing [psychologist Laurence] Steinberg, the authors argue that, when teens must make snap judgments in emotionally charged environments, they're indeed more likely to act impulsively and take irrational risks. But in cooler scenarios—like, say, when choosing whether or not to have an abortion—juveniles can match the decision-making capacity of adults.

Malvo was given multiple life sentences in Maryland and Virginia. His Maryland sentences were upheld in 2017 on the basis that Malvo was not sentenced under mandatory terms; rather, the judge considered Malvo's age and other mitigating factors in deciding his sentence. That decision is being appealed in a federal court in Maryland.

The Supreme Court hearing this fall, under the name Mathena v. Malvo, will involve Malvo's Virginia sentences. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond ruled that Malvo deserves a re-sentencing to determine if his crimes reflect "permanent incorrigibility," the standard required for a juvenile to deserve a life sentence without parole under Montgomery, or whether they reflect the "transient immaturity of youth," warranting a possibility for parole. The appellant argues that the Fourth Circuit's decision contradicts a separate decision made by the Virginia Supreme Court that concluded Miller would only apply in cases where the defendant had been given life without parole under mandatory state sentencing laws. Virginia does not have a mandatory minimum sentence for murder, aside from specific cases of involuntary manslaughter.