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SCOTUS Takes Up D.C. Sniper Case — And The Fate Of Juvenile Life Sentences

In this Oct. 20, 2003 file photo, Lee Boyd Malvo listens to court proceedings during the trial of fellow sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad in Virginia Beach, Va. An attorney for Malvo, convicted as a teenager of taking part in deadly sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington area, will argue before a Maryland judge that his young client’s life sentence is unconstitutional and should be thrown out. (Martin Smith-Rodden, Pool, File/AP)
In this Oct. 20, 2003 file photo, Lee Boyd Malvo listens to court proceedings during the trial of fellow sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad in Virginia Beach, Va. An attorney for Malvo, convicted as a teenager of taking part in deadly sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington area, will argue before a Maryland judge that his young client’s life sentence is unconstitutional and should be thrown out. (Martin Smith-Rodden, Pool, File/AP)

Should juveniles convicted of murder ever receive life in prison without the possibility of parole? The Supreme Court looks at the case of the D.C. Sniper, and raises the question of sentencing reform in juvenile justice.


Marsha Levick, chief counsel and founder of Juvenile Law Center, a public interest law firm advocating for children’s rights. Co-counsel in Montgomery v. Louisiana Supreme Court case that affirmed juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole. Adjunct professor at Penn Law and Temple University Beasley School of Law. ( @marshalevick)

Marshan Allen, project manager at Restore Justice Foundation, an Illinois criminal justice reform organization. Board member of The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.  ( @marshan_allen)

He received a sentence of life-without-parole for an offense that occurred when he was 15 — he was involved with a drug deal/robber that ended in a man being killed. He did not pull the trigger, but was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. He was released after almost 25 years in 2016 because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama.

From Our Callers

Gary, from Montgomery, Alabama

“I’m retired law enforcement, the city of Montgomery, and I actually responded to one of the D.C. sniper scenes when they passed through Montgomery. And I’ve also taking into custody juveniles at the age of 15 that had 15 priors. So I understand what you’re talking about.

“But let me say, we’re not born human beings. We learn how to be a human being. And when a child is raised in an atmosphere that’s inhumane, then that’s what they know. And at such a young age, they don’t have the opportunity to control their impulse behavior. So if you sentence them to life in prison in a hostile environment, they will never really learn how to be a decent human being.”

Steve, from New Orleans, Louisiana

“When I was 11 years old, I was coming back from an exhibition baseball game at the Superdome in New Orleans, and a 16- and 17-year-old tried to rob my family, and I watched my father get murdered.

“The person who is still in jail for the crime has the possibility of coming up for parole now because of the change in the sentencing guidelines. And while, objectively, it’s nice to talk about this — what Gary said, I think he’s absolutely correct. This person came from a background without parental responsibility, which I think is something that needs to be addressed when this is addressed. And now, this person has been in Angola [the Louisiana State Penitentiary] for almost 40 years now, and how is that person going to function in society? Do we want to take that chance? I mean, we received death threats, calls to my house after the crime, saying that if we testified, they would come after us.”

Marsha Levick: How do you respond to these callers on both sides of the debate?

“I think they both present very real and important perspectives on what we’re talking about. And I think, to Gary’s point, I appreciate his understanding from the position where he is, that precisely, the kinds of issues that he raised — the family background, how someone really grows up, the environment that they grow up in is something that should be considered and is something that can be changed, if we can change that environment over the course of their lives.

“And of course, to Steve’s story, horribly tragic. And, you know, can’t really even even appreciate the grief that he and his family experienced. But I can say to Steve that since Miller [v. Alabama] and Montgomery [v. Louisiana] came down, we have had hundreds of men and women released across the country. Again, in my state of Pennsylvania, where we had 500 men and women serving life-without-parole sentences, we’ve had about 225 released. They are individuals who have come back to their communities, who are giving back, who are, many of them, working in advocacy or social justice or community organizations.

“And I think one of the things that has been most stunning to me in my work is to appreciate, as challenged as these individuals were, as hardened, perhaps, as they were when they went into prison with very few opportunities for programs in these prison settings, self-educated, grew up — literally grew up in prison — became mature, redeemed themselves, accepted the consequences of their actions and are different people. And so to the concern, can we manage them coming back into our communities? I say yes, because I think we’re seeing it play out in real time every day right now across the country.”

From The Reading List

ABC News: “ DC sniper asks Supreme Court to invalidate juvenile life sentences for murders” — “Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the two ‘D.C. snipers’ whose murderous seven-week rampage terrorized the nation’s capital region in 2002, wants a chance at getting his life back.

“Malvo, who is serving life without parole in a Virginia prison, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to order that he be re-sentenced in light of the court’s 2012 decision prohibiting mandatory life sentences for juveniles. Malvo was 17 years old at the time of the rampage, orchestrated with co-conspirator John Allen Muhammad, that killed 10 and wounded three others.

“‘Invalidation of “mandatory” life without-parole sentences is premised on the court’s recognition that the qualities of youth — immaturity, vulnerability, and changeability — must be taken into account when sentencing a juvenile offender because those qualities will typically make life without parole an excessive punishment for a juvenile,’ Malvo’s attorneys write in court documents.

“The Eighth Amendment prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ for crimes.

“The justices on Wednesday will hear oral arguments in the case. Their decision could open the door to new, potentially more lenient sentences for Malvo, now 34, and thousands of other offenders. There are approximately 2,100 Americans serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, according to The Sentencing Project.”

The Sentencing Project: “ Youth Sentenced to Life Imprisonment” — “Sentencing youth to potentially lifelong imprisonment is virtually nonexistent anywhere else in the world. Despite evidence that adolescent brain development should mitigate the culpability of youth, all states allow juveniles to be sentenced to life imprisonment, and all but two states have persons serving a life or ‘virtual life’ sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile.

“In the United States, nearly 12,000 people are serving a life sentence for a crime they committed under the age of 18. This fact sheet uses data obtained from state departments of corrections at yearend 2016 and includes details about people serving sentences of life without parole (LWOP), life with parole (LWP), and virtual life imprisonment -sentences that extend to 50 years or more.

“There were 2,310 people serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles (known as JLWOP) at yearend 2016. In its 2017 ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court invalidated all existing JLWOP sentences that had been imposed by mandatory statute. As a result, youth sentenced to parole-ineligible life sentences in 29 states and the federal government are now in the process of having their original sentences reviewed or have been granted a new sentence. In a small fraction of cases, individuals have been released from prison. The post-Montgomery years have surely included a decline in the juvenile life without parole population, though there is not exact count as of yet. Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Michigan hold the greatest number of people serving JLWOP, comprising half of the national total. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia no longer allow juvenile life without parole”

NBC News: “ Cyntoia Brown-Long to Lester Holt on her release from prison: ‘There’s nothing special about me’” — “Cyntoia Brown-Long hopes that sharing her story can prevent what happened to her from happening to other young women.

“In her first television interview since she was released from prison, Brown-Long told ‘NBC Nightly News’ anchor Lester Holt that despite the hardships she’s endured, she feels like she’s been given a ‘great opportunity.’

“‘It’s an honor that God has put me in this position. I feel like it’s a great opportunity,’ Brown-Long said.

“‘I fully intend to step into that and to share my experiences as often as I can, with whoever I can, in the hopes that it can bring about more understanding about what goes on in the system with young girls who find themselves in the situation that I did.’ ”

Pulitzer Center: “ ‘Children Are Different:’ Sentencing Juveniles as Adults” — “Recent legislative reforms and judicial decisions may signal that states are beginning to scale back on “tough on crime” policies by changing how courts treat juveniles in the criminal justice system. Tough on crime policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s increased the number of juveniles charged as adults—viewing them not as children or delinquents but as fully formed criminals. But while juveniles may not be allowed to vote or drink alcohol, they can be sentenced to spend almost their entire lives in prison.

“In 2018, Congress passed changes to the Juvenile Justice Reform Act (JJRA), which now requires states to meet standards for placing juveniles in the criminal justice system, if the states want to receive federal funding through the JJRA. Among these standards, over the next three years every state must ensure juveniles are removed from adult jails while awaiting trial. Additionally, states must collect, analyze, and publish racial and ethnic data of the population of incarcerated juveniles and establish a plan to address racial disparities in adult prisons. Individuals are considered juveniles if they are under the age of 18.

“Other current laws create racial and geographical disparities in sentencing. A report published by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013 found that more juveniles are tried as adults in urban areas as opposed to rural or suburban, and that in the 75 largest counties in the U.S., two thirds of juveniles tried and sentenced as adults were racial minorities. Furthermore, juveniles in adult prisons are more likely to experience sexual assault, violence, and are more likely to reoffend once released compared to those sentenced to juvenile detention centers, according to a 2007 CDC report.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.