The US has the dubious distinction of being the sole nation on Earth that sentences juvenile offenders to life in prison without parole. Today, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that tests the limits of that punishment.
The matter involves an offender who many of you may remember and facts that will shock if you do not.
Lee Boyd Malvo was 17 years old when he became known as one of the two “DC snipers” in 2002. Under the influence of John Allen Muhammed, who brought Malvo to the US from Jamaica as a teen , the youth and his elder terrorized the Washington, DC metropolitan area for weeks, randomly killing 12 people, seriously injuring six others, and leaving many fearful of leaving their homes.
In 2004, Malvo was tried in Virginia for murder and faced the death penalty. He argued that he acted under Muhammed’s control, pleading insanity. While the jury rejected the plea, it also declined to impose the death penalty. Instead, it recommended a life sentence without parole, the only other possible punishment besides death in a capital murder case under Virginia law at the time. Malvo then pled guilty to additional charges and was sentenced twice more to life in prison without parole.
While Malvo was serving his sentences, the legal landscape was changing. Increasingly, the scientific evidence that young brains aren’t fully formed or capable of understanding consequences, from a biological perspective, made harsh penalties for youth offenders seem less and less acceptable.
In 2005, the Supreme Court decided a case that barred the imposition of the death penalty on juveniles, signaling a shift in the justices’ thinking. In 2012, they held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles constitutes under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution—which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment—unless consideration has been given at sentencing to whether the offender is “permanently incorrigible” or might in time be redeemed and possibly eligible for release.
Malvo, relying on Miller, in 2013 filed a habeas corpus petition in federal district court, arguing that his three life sentences without parole were unconstitutionally imposed. The court initially rejected his claim, saying that ruling didn’t apply to prisoners whose cases were final at the time of Miller, and Malvo appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 2016, the Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that Miller did apply to cases on “collateral review,” meaning matters under an indirect review process, like Malvo’s habeas petition. The Fourth Circuit remanded Malvo’s case to district court for reconsideration in light of the high court’s ruling.
Warden Randall Mathena of Virginia, however, argued that Malvo wasn’t entitled to any relief. The state’s position, which is now being supported in the Supreme Court by the federal government, was that Malvo’s life sentences without parole were not mandatory and so he falls outside the category of offenders covered by Miller and Montgomery. The state and federal officials argue in their briefs that Malvo’s sentences were discretionary, that is, the jury had an option to recommend death and instead chose life without parole for Malvo.
Malvo countered successfully that he was entitled to new sentencing because, contrary to the warden’s claims, the precedents applied to any juvenile life sentence without parole imposed with no consideration of the characteristics of the offenses and individual juvenile involved. He argues that the precedent requires that an individual’s capacity for redemption be considered at sentencing.
The district court agreed with Malvo’s take, vacating his sentences and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. So the warden appealed to the Supreme Court.
Is redemption the question?
Now, Virginia’s warden and the US government are urging the justices to take Malvo’s case as an opportunity to articulate the limits of its earlier juvenile justice decisions. They want the Supreme Court to say that its rulings only applied to mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences, not discretionary ones. To the extent he deserves a hearing, they argue, it should be to determine whether the sentences imposed on Malvo were indeed mandatory.
However, a group of esteemed legal scholars specializing in criminal law filed an amicus brief supporting Malvo and urging the court not to accept the warden and government’s interpretations. The scholars point out that they have “divergent legal and political outlooks,” but “share a keen interest in the federal courts, having published extensively on these topics and collected decades of experience examining issues implicated in this case.”
They argue that the critical element missing from Malvo’s earlier sentencing is evidence that a judge considered whether his crimes reflected “transient immaturity” or “irreparable corruption.” Is the juvenile permanently incorrigible? The correct test isn’t technical, asking if the sentence was mandatory or discretionary, but substantive, inquiring instead as to whether the sentence examined the individual offender’s crimes and youthful character, the scholars contend.
Why it matters
Whatever you may think of Malvo, this case matters. How we punish crime reflects on society. Because we now know that young brains aren’t fully formed, the high court has determined that certain punishments for young people are unjust unless the person has been deemed “permanently incorrigible.” By considering their “transient youthful immaturity” at sentencing, society is essentially acknowledging that some young people who committed serious crimes might not be permanently damaged and could be welcomed back.
The scholars aren’t arguing that Malvo was a good kid or that he should get parole—simply that he must be afforded the constitutional opportunity to have his redemption considered because anything less is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment in light of the court’s recent precedent. The whole point of Miller, the scholars argue, is to ensure that courts consider whether a juvenile is “permanently incorrigible” before locking them up and throwing out the key forever.
Of course, only the justices know what exactly they meant when they decided Miller and Montgomery. After today, they will mull these cases in light of Malvo’s claims, probably for some months. If they decide the legal scholars, the lower courts, and the DC Sniper are all right, then Malvo will have a chance to argue that he is redeemable at a new sentencing hearing, which still may not go his way.
A win for Malvo would be a win for American juvenile justice, or so the scholars argue. Certainly, it would bring the harshly punitive American approach a little closer to being in line with the rest of the globe.