If Not For Him, For Others: Supreme Court To Re-Examine Lee Boyd Malvo’s Sentence
The Supreme Court is considering whether Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 17 when he and his partner killed ten people in the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia), should be entitled to a new sentencing hearing. While it is unlikely that Mr. Malvo will ever leave the confines of his prison cell, his case could give hope to other juvenile offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
If you were not in diapers back in 2002, you probably remember the infamous case of the DC Snipers. Reports of shots firing and people lying dead while pumping gas struck terror to those living in the DMV area—and resonated with a country still recovering from the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
Almost twenty years after the shootings, much has changed in the sentencing guidelines for juvenile offenders. In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court held that executing individuals who were under 18 at the time they committed the underlying crime was “cruel and unusual” within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment. Later, in Miller v. Alabama the Supreme Court expanded on its opinion in Roper by holding that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for individuals who were under 18 at the time of their crimes also violated the Eighth Amendment. The Court went on to state that only “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption” may receive that sentence. More recently, the majority in Montgomery v. Louisiana held that the decision in Miller could be applied retroactively—giving life to Malvo’s case for resentencing.
On October 16, 2019, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for and against Malvo based on the decision in Montgomery. Malvo argued that because he was seventeen when he committed the offenses, precedent from Miller and Montgomery entitles him to a new trial so that the court may consider whether he was one of the rare, irreparably corrupt juvenile offenders who may constitutionally receive that sentence.
Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring interprets Miller differently. He argues that Miller only applies to “mandatory” sentencing schemes which bar judges from considering the offender’s age and not to “discretionary” schemes, which give the presiding judge the ability to lower sentences handed out by the jury. But, two lower courts have sided with Malvo, ruling that he is entitled to a hearing to determine whether his crimes satisfy the irreparable corruption standard set out in Miller.
While Malvo is an extreme case, the debate regarding how courts should treat youth offenders touches the foundations of criminal justice theory. From a retributivist perspective, Malvo deserves the most severe punishment allowable under the Constitution. He undoubtedly ruined the lives of many. Amici briefs filed by former prosecutors and the Department of Justice detail the trauma still felt almost twenty years after the slayings and argue that Malvo’s punishment is proportional to the seriousness of his crimes. On the other hand, briefs supporting Malvo filed by his victims view this case from a transformative justice perspective. Their briefs argue that condemning juveniles to die in prison is never an appropriate response to the harm they caused—and does nothing to honor the lives of those lost. Malvo’s survivors would prefer to see juveniles have an opportunity to pay their debt to society and have meaningful opportunities to contribute to their communities. One example is the testimony of Linda White. After years of grieving the unexpected death of her daughter, Linda reenrolled in college to give her life more meaning and to better understand the criminal justice system. As she learned more, she grew uncomfortable with the punitive nature of retributive justice. After graduating, Linda began teaching incarcerated individuals and became convinced that “harm can be remedied without causing more harm.” Linda personally observed youth successfully re-immerse themselves in the community, find and hold jobs, and most importantly, stay out of trouble.
As the Supreme Court has become increasingly conservative with the addition of Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh, the Court has the opportunity to either continue the trend towards rehabilitative justice for juveniles or halt the “youth matters” movement coined by Justice Kagan in Montgomery. Justice Kavanaugh appears to hold the swing vote. During oral arguments he questioned whether Virginia’s sentencing scheme was truly discretionary—one of the arguments proffered by Malvo’s attorney.
A ruling in favor of Malvo in his Virginia cases would not increase his chance of release. Malvo is still sentenced to six life sentences in Maryland and could even face murder charges in other states. However, a ruling in favor of Malvo would set a more promising precedent for the 60 defendants spread across six states who have yet to benefit from the retroactivity rule set out in Montgomery. Ultimately, there is little disagreement over the notion that nobody is who they were twenty years ago. A favorable ruling for Malvo would ensure that youth who commit crimes—even heinous ones, are given a chance to pay their debt, grow up, and turn their lives around.