Lee Boyd Malvo, who as a teenager took part in one of the most terrifying serial sniper murder cases in U.S. history, will be going back to court after a federal judge Friday threw out two life sentences on constitutional grounds.
U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk, Va. ordered that Malvo receive new sentencing hearings in Virginia after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Jackson wrote that the Supreme Court’s ruling on juveniles grants new rights to teenagers that Malvo didn’t know he had when he agreed to a plea bargain.
Malvo was 17 when he was arrested in 2002 for a series of shootings that killed 10 people and wounded three in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, causing widespread fear throughout the region. The attacks brought worldwide press coverage amid concern that the hit-and-fly attacks — many carried out from a sniper's nest hidden in a modified car trunk — were possibly carried out by terrorists.
The new hearings would likely to result in prison sentences once again for Malvo, considering the weight of the evidence presented at the time. But the new court dates could also bring Malvo — whose lawyers claimed he was a naive adolescent who fell under the murderous guile of accomplice John Allen Muhammad — another shot at someday earning his release. His previous life sentences were without possibility of parole.
Michael Kelly, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, said Friday evening that the office is “reviewing the decision and will do everything possible, including a possible appeal, to make sure this convicted mass murderer serves the life sentences that were originally imposed.”
He also noted that the convictions themselves stand and emphasized that, even if Malvo gets a new sentencing hearing, he could still be resentenced to a life term.
Jackson based his decision on two U.S. Supreme Court rulings. One prohibited mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles. The other, decided last year, established a legal framework for retroactive reviews of such sentences by state courts. Writing for the 6-3 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the change would provide a potential opportunity for release to convicted defendants who can demonstrate “that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”
Citing the rulings, Jackson wrote: “this Court finds the public policy involved here outweighs the interest in enforcing the two life-without-parole provisions.”
Malvo also was sentenced to life in prison in Maryland for the murders that occurred there. But his lawyers have made an appeal on similar grounds in that state. A hearing is scheduled in June.
Now 32, Malvo is serving multiple life sentences at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, a supermax prison. Muhammad, 48, was executed in 2009. Lawyers for Malvo said Muhammad, who treated Malvo as his son and taught him marksmanship, had a Svengali effect on the youth and coerced him into the killing spree.
Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Morrogh, who helped prosecute Malvo, said the Virginia attorney general can appeal Jackson's ruling. If not, he said he would pursue another life sentence.
Muhammad, who had military rifle training, had befriended Malvo at a young age and enlisted the youth to commit random attacks. Malvo believed Muhammad when he told him that a $10 million ransom sought from the US government to stop the sniper killings would be used to establish a Utopian society for homeless black children in Canada.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. Then, last year, the Supreme Court applied that case retroactively to sentences issued before 2012.
Malvo, in one of the rare prison interviews he granted to the media, told NBC’s “Today” show five years ago that he felt powerless to refuse Muhammad's wishes to shoot at innocent people.
“I couldn’t say no,” he said in the interview. “I had wanted that level of love and acceptance and consistency for all of my life and couldn’t find it.”
In an interview that same year with the Washington Post, Malvo described himself as "a monster...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.”
Contributing: Associated Press