SCOTUS Hears Arguments in DC Sniper Case
The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments Mathena v. Malvo, which involves whether one of the so-called D.C. snipers, Lee Malvo, should be sentenced to life-without -parole. Malvo argues that the sentence is unconstitutional because he was a juvenile at the time of the crimes.
In Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), the Supreme Court held that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.'” Four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), the Court held that “Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law” that, under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), must be given “retroactive effect” in cases where direct review was complete when Miller was decided. Mathena v. Malvo centers on whether Malvo should be able to take advantage of the Court’s decisions in Miller and Montgomery.
Facts of the Case
Over the course of almost seven weeks in the fall of 2002, Lee Malvo and John Muhammad—better known as the “D.C. Snipers”—murdered 12 individuals, inflicted grievous injuries on 6 others, and terrorized the entire Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. After a Virginia jury convicted Lee Boyd Malvo of two counts of capital murder based on homicides that he committed when he was 17 years old, it declined to recommend the death penalty. Instead, he sentenced in 2004 to two terms of life imprisonment without parole, in accordance with Virginia law.
On June 25, 2013, Malvo filed two petitions for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court, arguing that the life sentences he received in Virginia violated the Eighth Amendment in light of the Supreme Court’s then-recent decision in Miller. The district court dismissed Malvo’s petitions as time-barred, concluding that Miller’s prohibition on mandatory life without-parole sentences did not apply retroactively to cases in which direct review had concluded when Miller was decided. Malvo appealed, and, after this Court’s January 2016 decision in Montgomery, the Fourth Circuit remanded the case for further proceedings before the district court.
The district court concluded that, after Montgomery, it “need not determine whether Virginia’s penalty scheme is mandatory or discretionary because [it concluded] that the rule announced in Miller applies to all situations in which a juvenile receives a life-without-parole sentence.” The district court determined that judges have an affirmative duty to “consider the factors articulated in [Miller and Montgomery] every time a juvenile is sentenced to life imprisonment without parole,” even if the sentence is discretionary and the defendant does not ask for such consideration. The court vacated all of Malvo’s life sentences in Virginia and ordered him to be re-sentenced.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed. It also interpreted Montgomery as “confirm[ing] that . . . a sentencing judge also violates Miller’s rule any time it imposes a discretionary life-without-parole sentence on a juvenile homicide offender without first concluding that the offender’s ‘crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,’ as distinct from ‘the transient immaturity of youth.’”
Issues Before the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court has agreed to decide the following question:
Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit erred in concluding—in direct conflict with Virginia’s highest court and other courts—that a decision of the Supreme Court, Montgomery v. Louisiana, addressing whether a new constitutional rule announced in an earlier decision, Miller v. Alabama, applies retroactively on collateral review may properly be interpreted as modifying and substantively expanding the very rule whose retroactivity was in question.
The Court heard oral arguments on October 16, 2019. The key issue debated by the justices was whether it matters that Malvo’s sentence was technically not mandatory under Virginia law, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh projected to cast the key vote. A decision is expected before the term ends next June.
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