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D.C. Sniper Case At Supreme Court


Seventeen years ago, Washington, D.C., was terrorized by two snipers who shot and killed 10 people and injured three others. Seventeen-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo and his surrogate father, John Allen Muhammad, were convicted of murder. Muhammad was executed. Malvo, the teenager, got life without parole. But years later, the Supreme Court would make it much harder to give a juvenile a sentence like that. And now Malvo's case is at the Supreme Court. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has the story.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: If you lived in Washington, D.C., back in 2002, you remember the palpable fear that gripped the city.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A man has been killed in front of me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A man just fell in the parking lot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There's a lady. She's not moving.

TOTENBERG: The shootings were so random and so lethal that people pumping gas often crouched down to avoid being easily seen just in case the sniper was in the vicinity. The saga of the two snipers was bizarre. Malvo, the 17-year-old, said he'd killed 10 of the victims at Muhammad's bidding, often shooting from the trunk of a car through a bored hole. A jury convicted him of murder but, instead of death, recommended life without the possibility of parole, and the judge subsequently imposed that sentence. That, however, was in 2004.

In the years that followed, the Supreme Court would strike down the death penalty for juvenile offenders, and it would also declare unconstitutional a mandatory life-without-parole sentence. So Malvo's lawyers went back to court asking for a new sentencing hearing. Two lower courts agreed that his sentencing hearing was unconstitutional because there was no consideration of his youth. And yesterday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case.

Defending Malvo's original sentence was Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens, who maintained that life without the possibility of parole was not mandatory because the judge could have reduced the sentence recommended by the jury if she saw fit. Justice Ginsburg - explain to me why these sentences are not mandatory when the jury had only two choices, death or life without parole. And has any Virginia judge ever reduced a jury recommendation to less than life without parole? No, conceded lawyer Heytens, I'm not aware of any such example.

Justice Kagan, who wrote the court's 2012 decision, opined that her decision was 30 pages long but could be summarized in two words - youth matters. Now, nobody disputes that is the rule for cases that came afterward. But the question in the Malvo case is whether the 2012 decision and others that followed apply retroactively to crimes before 2012.

Justice Kavanaugh - how do we know - and this is the tough part of the case for me - that a sentencing judge has, in fact, considered the defendant's youth? He posed the contrary question to Malvo's lawyer, Danielle Spinelli. Most state laws require judges to consider all sorts of factors, and judges don't usually march through a discussion of all of those factors. Why do we think the judge didn't do that here? Because, replied Spinelli, the judge couldn't have even silently in her head considered factors that weren't articulated by this court until years later. What we are asking for is that those factors be considered now in a new sentencing hearing.

Justice Alito - so if he can demonstrate that he's been rehabilitated, he must be released? No, absolutely not, replied Spinelli, noting that some defendants who get a new hearing are sentenced to life without parole a second time. But even those who are eligible for parole, she said, are not guaranteed they'll ever be paroled.

In the years since the D.C. sniper killings, a lot has changed, perhaps for Malvo as well as his victims. In a 2012 interview with The Washington Post, Malvo spoke about his crimes this way.


LEE BOYD MALVO: I mean, I was a monster. I mean, if you look up the definition, I mean, that's what a monster is. I was a ghoul. I was a thief. I stole people's lives.

TOTENBERG: Paul LaRuffa, one of Malvo's surviving victims, favored the death penalty for Malvo at the time he was shot, but now he thinks Malvo should get a new sentencing hearing.

PAUL LARUFFA: I'm more interested in not Lee Boyd Malvo as an individual but in the many, many other people who did things less heinous than him that were sentenced to life without parole when they were 15, 16 years old.

TOTENBERG: A decision in the case is expected by summer.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.