Lee Boyd Malvo occupies a sickening page in the annals of mass killers with ties to the Tacoma area. The murderers’ row includes Ted Bundy, Robert Yates, Joseph Edward Duncan, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales — and, of course, John Allen Muhammad, to whom Malvo is inextricably linked.
Before Malvo and Muhammad wreaked havoc with their Washington D.C. sniper attacks, killing 10 and wounding three, they carried out a savage initiation ritual in Tacoma. Malvo fired a fatal shot into the head of a complete stranger, 21-year-old Keenya Cook, on the front porch of Cook’s aunt’s Eastside home.
Malvo, the assassin convicted of terrorizing the nation’s capital in 2002, had his life sentence overturned last week — a decision that seems outrageous on its face. Imagine the backlash if a judge ever decided to cut Yates or Duncan slack for their killings, or if Bales were granted leniency after slaying 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood.
And yet a federal judge’s call to resentence Malvo rests on constitutional bedrock. Unlike the others on that local list of murderers, Malvo was a child when he killed. Granting him a resentencing hearing was the only logical outcome after a string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions upending mandatory life terms for juveniles. It also affirms brain research that shows adolescents are both highly impressionable and remarkably reformable.
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There is little doubt Muhammad brainwashed his protege after taking the fatherless boy from the Caribbean islands. He eventually brought Malvo to Tacoma, where Muhammad had lived several years after his stint in the Army at JBLM. The former soldier pumped Malvo with pills, gun training and violent delusions fueled by Muhammad’s child-custody problems.
“He picked me because he knew he could mold me. He knew I could be what he needed me to be,” Malvo told the Washington Post in a prison interview in 2012, a decade after his arrest for the sniper shootings at age 17.
To the extent justice can ever be served after such a barbaric killing spree, it was served in the Beltway sniper case. Muhammad, convicted on capital murder charges, was executed by lethal injection in 2009. Malvo, once he faces the music at a new sentencing hearing, will likely spend several more years, if not life, in prison.
One does not have to feel sympathy for Malvo to acknowledge this triggerman was actually a boy. The argument that kids who kill shouldn’t automatically be condemned to die behind bars was summed up by Justice Anthony Kennedy, author of the Supreme Court’s most recent ruling on a juvenile sentencing case. Rare is the youth, he wrote in 2016, possessed of such “irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.”
More and more, judges are declaring that overly long juvenile sentences amount to cruel and unusual punishment. It’s why Washington’s state Supreme Court this year tossed out extreme sentences for two boys convicted as adults for robbing Tacoma children of their Halloween candy. And it’s why Barry Massey won his release from prison last year, nearly three decades after he fatally stabbed Steilacoom Marina owner Paul Wang; Massey was 13 at the time.
We can appreciate why such decisions would inflame victims’ families, reopening painful wounds for Cook’s and Wang’s survivors.
But judges ultimately must answer to the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That means every person sent away for crimes committed as a child must have a chance to prove he’s not irretrievably depraved.
While that can never erase blood from the page already written, in some cases it might offer an opportunity to draft a new one.