In the fall of 2002, Lee Boyd Malvo, together with John Allen Muhammad, terrorized America with a rifle aimed through a hole in a car trunk. The random shooting spree claimed 10 lives in the Washington D.C. area. The infamous Beltway Snipers were also tied to at least 11 more premeditated shootings in several states, some fatal.
The first happened in Tacoma. Keenya Cook, 21, was standing on the porch of her aunt’s Eastside home when Malvo shot her. This savage killing of an innocent young woman was an initiation test given to 17-year-old Malvo by Muhammad, a former JBLM soldier 15 years his senior.
Now the state of Virginia wants to keep Malvo’s sentence of life without parole, but Malvo claims his full constitutional rights weren’t recognized when he sentenced. In arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 16, he sought retroactive application of laws reflecting the diminished capacity of juvenile offenders.
Malvo has a valid case. Certainly those are hard words to hear in a city that endured the prologue of his deadly rampage. Be assured, however, that a favorable Supreme Court ruling won’t rescue him from a lifetime behind bars. What it could do is help shape the fate of other young offenders for years to come.
Malvo is now twice as old as when he committed those heinous crimes, and immeasurably fortunate. A jury sentenced Mohammad to death by lethal injection, but Malvo was spared. And since the young man’s sentencing, two Supreme Court rulings have severely limited life-without-parole terms for juveniles. A 2012 ruling said mandatory sentences were a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
Four years later, the Supreme Court ruled states must retroactively grant new hearings for most (but not all) individuals denied any chance of freedom because of crimes they committed before age 18.
It’s part of a growing legal recognition that juveniles are still developing — part of a movement to allow those who made terrible choices as children to show a parole board they deserve a second chance. It’s why Barry Massey was released from a Washington prison in 2016, nearly three decades after 13-year-old Barry joined another boy in fatally stabbing Steilacoom Marina owner Paul Wang, then fled with cash, fishing rods and candy.
Whether the public likes it or not, Malvo should qualify for similar consideration. His case has been hung up in the courts over technical questions of mandatory vs. discretionary life sentences, but his attorney summed up the heart of the matter in her recent argument to the Supreme Court:
“Juveniles are entitled to at least one opportunity to show that they are not permanently incorrigible,” attorney Danielle Spinelli said.
Don’t get us wrong, convicted cold-blooded killers shouldn’t get light sentences or drag victims’ families through more legal proceedings. But this ruling is about precedent and a possibility of parole. Ensuring young offenders have constitutional protections, and, yes, even a chance at redemption, is the right thing to do.
It’s important to note that even if Malvo wins a new sentencing hearing in Virginia, he may face the same outcome. Judges aren’t prohibited from handing out life-without-parole sentences to minors; the new constitutional rules just set the bar higher.
The truth is, Malvo’s chances of ever walking free are slim, since he’s also been sentenced to six life sentences in Maryland. But like all Supreme Court cases, there are implications for other juvenile offenders.
Around 2,500 people are now serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed at Malvo’s age or younger. Most came from poverty, most are people of color and most were sentenced with little or no regard for their age and immaturity at the time of their crimes.
“And justice for all” isn’t just a pithy slogan; it’s a longstanding expectation even for those accused of the worst offenses, and certainly for the youngest among us.