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4th Cir.: Juvenile D.C. sniper to be resentenced under Miller

The younger “D.C. sniper,” who was a teenager when he was convicted of several murders and related crimes, must be resentenced following retroactive constitutional standards for juvenile punishment, established subsequent to his sentencing.


During about seven weeks in 2002, Appellant Lee Malvo and John Muhammad – better known as the “D.C. snipers” – murdered 12 people, inflicted grievous injuries on six others, and terrorized the entire Washington D.C. community.

Malvo was indicted as an adult for capital murder, and the prosecutor sought the death penalty. At trial, he asserted an insanity defense based on the theory that Muhammad had indoctrinated him during his adolescence. The jury nevertheless convicted him on all charges. After they were instructed to choose between the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole, they returned a verdict for the latter punishment.

Malvo later entered into a plea agreement as to additional capital murder charges pending separately. As part of the agreement, the Commonwealth agreed that two terms of life imprisonment was the appropriate disposition in his case, and the trial court sentenced him accordingly.

Nearly eight years later, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile homicide offenders from receiving “mandatory life-without-parole” sentences. In 2016, the Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), that Miller applied retroactively.

Based on Miller and Montgomery, the district court granted Malvo’s applications for writs of habeas corpus. The Warden has appealed.

Life without parole

Under Montgomery, a sentencing court violates Miller any time it imposes a discretionary life-without-parole sentence on a juvenile homicide offender without first concluding that the offender’s crimes “reflect permanent incorrigibility,” as opposed to “the transient immaturity of youth.” Contrary to the Warden’s argument in this case, Montgomery’s articulation of the Miller rule was not mere dictum, and this court is obliged to follow it.

Consideration of youth

Virginia law did not permit the jury to give  Malvo a sentence less than life without parole. In its choice between the death penalty and life without parole, it selected the more lenient.

Moreover, the jury was never charged with finding whether Malvo’s crimes reflected irreparable corruption or permanent incorrigibility – a determination now a prerequisite to imposing a life-without parole sentence on a juvenile homicide offender. Nor were Malvo’s “youth and attendant circumstances” considered by either the jury or the judge in determining whether to sentence him to life without parole or some lesser sentence.

Thus, Malvo’s sentencing proceedings did not satisfy the Eighth Amendment.

Effect of plea

Malvo did not waive his constitutional challenge to his sentences by signing the plea agreement. He agreed that Virginia’s summary of the facts could be proven were the case to go to trial. He expressly waived his rights to a speedy and public trial by jury, to compel the production of evidence and attendance of witnesses, to have a lawyer, to not testify against himself, and to be confronted by his accusers, and to appeal. However, while Malvo acknowledged that the Commonwealth agreed that life without parole was an appropriate punishment for his crimes, he did not himself agree to that proposition. He did expressly waive constitutional rights relating to trial and his right to direct appeal, but nothing with respect to the right to pursue future habeas relief from his punishment.

Therefore, while Malvo’s convictions remain valid, the court rejects the Warden’s argument that Malvo waived his right to challenge his sentences.


Because Malvo was 17 years old when he committed his crimes, he now has the retroactive benefit of new constitutional rules that treat juveniles differently for sentencing. This court is bound to apply those rules, and Malvo is entitled to resentencing, as the district court held.


Malvo v. Mathena, No. 17-6746, June 21, 2018. 4th Cir. (Niemeyer), from EDVA at Norfolk (Jackson). Matthew Robert McGuire for Appellant; Craig Stover Cooley for Appellee. VLW No. 018-2-134, 25 pp.

VLW 018-2-134

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