A federal judge has tossed out two life sentences for D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo and ordered Virginia courts to hold new sentencing hearings.
In a ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk said Malvo is entitled to new sentencing hearings after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.
Malvo was 17 when he was arrested in October 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 string of killings started well before that — the first death came in February 2002 in Tacoma, where Keenya Cook, 21, was fatally shot at the doorstep of her aunt’s home by Malvo.
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Malvo’s mentor, John Allen Muhammad, who masterminded the killings, was executed in 2009.
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.
Malvo admitted killing Cook at Muhammad’s order. He was 16 at the time, already in thrall to Muhammad, who referred to Malvo as his son when the two lived and traveled together.
Cook was not the intended target. She was staying at her aunt’s home in East Tacoma when she answered the door to a then-unidentified gunman who shot her in the face. Muhammad blamed Cook’s aunt for her perceived interference in a custody battle over Muhammad’s children.
During Malvo’s 2004 murder trial in Virginia, two psychiatrists and one psychologist testified that Malvo told them he had killed Cook as a test of whether he could be a killer.
“(Muhammad) instructed Lee he had to do this as part of the mission,” one psychiatrist said. “(Malvo) said he arrived at the door. They spoke for several minutes. The victim was friendly, and he then pulled out a .45 and shot her once in the head.”
Malvo ran away, shaking, the psychiatrist said.
That year, Pierce County Prosecutor Gerry Horne decided not to bring charges in Cook’s death. He said he couldn’t justify the expense when he knew the snipers were facing life sentences lives in prison for other murders.
“I'm aware of the pain,” Horne said at the time. “(But) the likelihood that it would change anything is exceedingly remote.”
Horne said Cook’s killing didn’t include the “aggravating factors” that made it legally worse than most murders and that would allow him to seek sentences of life in prison and death.
Investigators in other states, including Alabama and Arizona, wrestled with similar concerns.
In a 2010 interview with actor William Shatner for a true-crime documentary, Malvo said he and Muhammad were responsible for 42 shootings across the country, including the 10 fatal shootings in the Washington, D.C., area. The number was greater than the 27 shootings formally linked to the pair by federal investigators.
Muhammad, who spent most of his adult life in Pierce County and Tacoma, was honorably discharged from the Army in 1994. He had been stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, then still known as Fort Lewis.
His marriage fell apart in 1999, and he fled Tacoma with his three children. His travels took him to Antigua, where he met and befriended Malvo, who became his protege.
Malvo subsequently stole a Bushmaster rifle from a Tacoma gun shop — the weapon that would be linked to the D.C. murders.
The Associated Press contributed to this report and information from News Tribune archives is included.