Finally, in Mathena v. Malvo, the Court will decide whether Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the two Beltway snipers, is entitled to a new sentencing procedure. Malvo, who was 17 at the time, roamed the highways of the District of Columbia and Maryland, along with John Allen Muhammad, a quarter century his senior; the two randomly shot and killed 10 people at a distance with a high-powered rifle. Malvo was tried and, in 2004, sentenced to life in prison without parole; Muhammad was executed by Virginia in 2009.
Read: The making, and unmaking, of D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo
However, in a 2012 decision called Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court decided that, in most cases, a mandatory “no parole” sentence violates the Eighth Amendment rights of defendants who were underage at the time of their crimes. Because children can change so much as they mature, the Court reasoned, such prisoners are entitled to a chance to show that they might, someday, be safe to release on parole—and an automatic no-parole sentence denies them that chance. Then, in 2016, in Montgomery v. Alabama, the Court announced that the Miller rule was retroactive. That meant courts must apply it to state cases of defendants who were already convicted, but were seeking review of their sentences.
Malvo sought such review in federal court in Virginia. A federal district judge held that he was entitled to a new sentencing procedure, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Virginia had argued that it actually was a “discretionary” sentence—since under long-standing Virginia rules, the trial court could have suspended some or all of Malvo’s life term. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the judge who sentenced Malvo believed that he had no such discretion.
But even if the Virginia rule made the sentence discretionary, the appeals court argued, the Montgomery decision required setting it aside. That’s because, the court said, Montgomery held that a no-parole sentence can’t be handed down unless the sentencing judge specifically finds that the defendant’s “‘crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,’ as distinct from ‘the transient immaturity of youth.’”
It’s hard to imagine that the justices burn with compassion for Malvo (most of them were living in the region in 2002, when everyone was terrified of being shot at the gas pumps). But the high court almost had to take this case, because the Fourth Circuit’s reading of Montgomery directly conflicts with the Virginia Supreme Court’s. The Virginia court reads the decision to apply only to mandatory sentences—rendering the need for a judicial finding of “incorrigibility” unnecessary. The prospect is that prisoners who appeal to the state court will be turned down under its rule, then immediately petition the federal courts—and win. Something has to give.
All together, these cases show a Court trying honorably to play its role as supervisor of the criminal-justice system—and it may be poised to make things better. In a season of dread, Monday’s order provides reason to hope that some small good news may be on the way.