The nation’s highest court on Wednesday is set to review the life sentences handed down in the early aughts to a then-teenage Lee Boyd Malvo, convicted of multiple murders as an active accomplice of John Allen Muhammad, the serial killer known as the D.C. Sniper—a review that has even won the support of some whom Malvo targeted for death.
As WTOP reports, in the years since Malvo’s conviction and sentencing in multiple jurisdictions, the U.S. Supreme Court has reconsidered how juveniles should be treated with regard to the death penalty and life imprisonment. In 2005, the court found the death penalty to be unconstitutional for juveniles, and in 2012, it said the same about mandatory life sentences.
In 2016, the court ruled that its decision about mandatory life sentences should apply retroactively.
As a result, the Washington Post reports, Malvo, currently serving one of his multiple life sentences in Virginia, filed to have a new sentence. A federal court ruled in Malvo’s favor, but the state of Virginia appealed, and on Wednesday, the Supreme Court will review the case.
Isa Farrington Nichols, whose niece was murdered by Malvo when he mistakenly shot her instead of Nichols—his actual target—is one of those who supports the review.
With so many criminal sentences in different jurisdictions, even Malvo and his attorney acknowledge that he will not be a free man, even if he does win his quest to get resentenced in Virginia.
For this reason, Nichols told the Post, she’s considering the bigger picture of how juveniles in general are treated by the criminal justice system, as opposed to Malvo, specifically:
“This is not about him being released,” Nichols said, knowing that even reducing Malvo’s 10 life sentences would not lead to his freedom. “The first time I heard it, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ This was someone sent to my door to kill me. But as I listened more and more, I understood the totality of what’s involved, and the other families involved in youths sentenced to life without parole … I believe there’s a bigger picture here. This is something that needs to be done.”
To that bigger picture, like everything else regarding criminal justice in the U.S., race plays a role here, as well. As the Post reports:
There is also a racial disparity to juvenile sentencings, said Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth. “African American youth get life sentences at a rate of 10 times white youth,” Lavy said. “And racial disparity actually increases when judges get more discretion in sentencing.”
Malvo, now 34, was a teenager in 2002 when he and his mentor Muhammad killed 10 random people in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., as part of a murderous spree concocted to help the much-older Muhammad throw off investigators about his real target—his ex-wife.
The 10 were among a total of 14 people killed, and at least seven others injured, by the pair throughout the country.
As the Post explains:
The pair were arrested near Frederick, Md., and prosecuted in Virginia in 2003, where capital punishment was still an option for juveniles. Muhammad was sentenced to death, but Malvo’s jury chose a life sentence without parole rather than death for the Jamaican teen, who was 17 at the time of the sniper shootings. He then entered pleas in two additional Virginia shootings, and in six Maryland slayings, and received eight more life sentences.
Muhammad was sentenced [to] death and executed in 2009, but as a measure of mercy due to his youthfulness at the time of his crimes, Malvo was sentenced to multiple life sentences, rather than death.
But in its 2012 ruling that made mandatory life without parole sentences unconstitutional for juveniles, Justice Elena Kagan wrote:
“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”
“The distinctive attributes of youth,” Kagan wrote, the Post adds, “diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.”