Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the two "D.C. snipers" whose murderous seven-week rampage terrorized the nation's capital region in 2002, wants a chance at getting his life back.
Malvo, who is serving life without parole in a Virginia prison, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to order that he be re-sentenced in light of the court's 2012 decision prohibiting mandatory life sentences for juveniles. Malvo was 17 years old at the time of the rampage, orchestrated with co-conspirator John Allen Muhammad, that killed 10 and wounded three others.
"Invalidation of 'mandatory' life without-parole sentences is premised on the court's recognition that the qualities of youth -- immaturity, vulnerability, and changeability -- must be taken into account when sentencing a juvenile offender because those qualities will typically make life without parole an excessive punishment for a juvenile," Malvo's attorneys write in court documents.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments" for crimes.
The justices on Wednesday will hear oral arguments in the case. Their decision could open the door to new, potentially more lenient sentences for Malvo, now 34, and thousands of other offenders. There are approximately 2,100 Americans serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, according to The Sentencing Project.
"I was a monster," Malvo told the Washington Post in a 2012 interview from behind bars. "If you look up the definition, that's what a monster is. I was a ghoul. I was a thief. I stole people's lives. I did someone else's bidding just because they said so. ... There is no rhyme or reason or sense."
Malvo is serving four life-without-parole sentences in Virginia and six life-without-parole sentences from Maryland. He is unlikely to be released anytime soon, regardless of how the court rules.
The justices will grapple with two key questions: Was Malvo's 2004 life sentence in Virginia effectively "mandatory" and now eligible for a review? And, did the Supreme Court mean to outlaw all life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, even those that were not mandatory?
The state argues that Malvo was locked up for life at the jury's discretion, given the viciousness of his crimes, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has not explicitly addressed "non-mandatory" life-without-parole punishment for juvenile murderers.
"This case is not about the meaning of the Eighth Amendment. Instead, it is about how and when decisions announcing new constitutional interpretations are made retroactive to other cases that have long become final when those interpretations are announced," attorneys for the state of Virginia tell the court.
The Virginia Supreme Court upheld Malvo's sentence of life without parole, but the federal 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said the original sentence must be revisited in light of Supreme Court rulings requiring judges and juries to "take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison."
The Trump administration opposes that decision. "Only mandatory sentences, imposed indiscriminately on all juvenile offenders, create the degree and kind of risk that would require retroactive invalidation," Solicitor General Noel Francisco writes in a friend-of-the-court brief.
Lawyers for Malvo say the jury in his case was not allowed to consider any sentence other than death or life without parole, making it effectively mandatory.
"There is no doubt that Malvo committed heinous crimes," Malvo's attorneys write in court documents. But "mandatory schemes, in which sentencers have no alternative but to sentence all juvenile offenders to life without parole, necessarily violate [the Supreme Court's 2012 decision] because they make youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence and thereby pose too great a risk of disproportionate punishment."
Malvo's accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, was sentenced to death and executed in 2009.