L

Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the convicted gunmen from the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, is appealing his sentence of life without the possibility of parole to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Malvo was just seventeen when he served as John Allen Muhammad’s accomplice during the attacks that stretched over three weeks and paralyzed the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. The pair selected and shot their victims at random from the trunk of a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, killing ten people and critically injuring three others.

Malvo received his first sentences of life without the possibility of parole when he was convicted of capital murder for the death of Linda Franklin, an FBI analyst. He later agreed to plea deals in subsequent cases in Virginia and Maryland and received a total of ten additional life sentences. Now, Malvo’s lawyer claims he is entitled to a new sentencing hearing and asked the Fourth Circuit to follow the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling that retroactively applies their prior decisions regarding the unconstitutionality of juvenile life sentences.

The Supreme Court first tackled juvenile sentencing standards in 2005 with Roper v. Simmons and ruled that juvenile death sentences are unconstitutional based on Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment protections. They found this level of punishment was drastically disproportionate when considering a minor’s potential culpability. States could no longer impose the death penalty on offenders who were minors when they committed their crimes and seventy-two prisoners, across twelve states, were accordingly taken off death row. Life without the possibility of parole was now the harshest sentencing standard available in the U.S. juvenile justice system.

Six years later, in 2011, the Court first addressed the constitutionality of juvenile life without parole. They decided in Graham v. Florida that this sentence was inappropriate for cases not involving homicide, again addressing proportionality under the Eighth Amendment “cruel and unusual punishment” clause. The Supreme Court thus restricted life without parole sentences to only the most heinous juvenile crimes.

However, just one year later the Supreme Court heard two more juvenile life without parole cases and decided concurrently in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs that mandating these sentences for any crime committed by a minor violated his or her Eighth Amendment rights. The Court held that the totality of an adolescent’s “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences” should mitigate against states levying these harsh punishments.

The most recent, and perhaps most impactful, of all the Supreme Court’s rulings on the subject was handed down in 2016. After the Miller and Jackson decisions, states were divided on how to interpret the holding. Some state supreme courts ruled it should be applied retroactively, while others declined to extend it in that manner. Additionally, six states passed juvenile sentencing legislation that applied retroactively. The inconsistent interpretations and legislative decisions culminated in the Supreme Court’s holding in Montgomery v. Louisiana. Here, the Court held that when their ruling establishes a substantive constitutional rule, like the one created by Miller, it applies retroactively because these rules grant constitutional rights reaching beyond basic procedural guarantees.

Juvenile culpability was at the center of the Court’s six-three decision in favor of interpreting that their previous holdings should be applied retroactively. In his opinion, Justice Kennedy concluded that juvenile offenders “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

While the issue may appear cut and dry following the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision, applying Montgomery to Malvo’s case could prove difficult. Maryland prosecutors have already successfully argued that the Supreme Court’s holding is not valid in states where life without parole sentencing is not mandatory. This interpretation weaves in state law sentencing mandates and paints them as the crux of the larger issue. Under this view, if a state does not mandate life without parole sentences for any particular class of crimes committed by juveniles then these sentences are not inherently biased or skewed per the “cruel and unusual punishment” language in the Eighth Amendment.

Currently, the Virginia Attorney General’s office is attacking Malvo’s request for a new sentencing hearing, claiming Malvo’s case falls under the “incorrigible and unable to be reformed” exception in Montgomery. Justice Kennedy’s opinion included a caveat that juveniles can still be sentenced to life without parole in cases of “irreparable corruption.” The Virginia prosecutor has seized on this terminology and characterized Malvo’s involvement as one of the rare cases in which the original sentence is still appropriate. This theory recently prevailed in a juvenile murder-for-hire case in Ohio. A teenager was convicted of working as a contract killer and showed no possibility of rehabilitation in the eyes of the court following statements he made from prison about retaliation against witnesses from his trial. Here, the lack of plausible rehabilitation for the killer, combined with the gravity of his crimes, were central factors when the court handed down the maximum sentence of life without parole.

This exception in the Montgomery decision left a small crack in the proverbial door and presents a problem in juvenile sentencing equity across the country. Specifically, Malvo’s case highlights the underlying trouble of the Supreme Court’s irreparable corruption exception and begs the question of whether or not the Court’s broad ruling will have any concrete effect on juvenile sentencing going forward.

Currently, the United States is the only developed country in the world that utilizes life without parole sentencing in its juvenile justice system. The current number of prisoners serving this sentence for a crime they committed as a minor is over 2,000. Even more troubling, the demographics of this number tie back to the pervasive problem of systemic racism in American penal codes that directly results in the mass incarceration of African-American men. From more than 2,000 prisoners, ninety-seven percent are male and sixty percent are black.

As state and federal courts grapple with the task of resentencing former juvenile offenders, a wide disparity has emerged. Prosecutors in several states, including Michigan who has the second largest population of these inmates in the country, have retried many of their cases. However, the newly imposed sentences of 40, 50, 60, or even 80 years are, in effect, a life sentence for inmates who have been in prison for several decades. Even more troubling, states like Michigan have retried cases and simply asked for, and received, the same sentence of life-without-parole under a broad interpretation of the Supreme Court’s “irreparable corruption” exception.

While it is unclear why exactly the Supreme Court created this small opening, and whether or not it was intentional, it is already apparent the exception could be used to dismantle the Court’s overarching goal: preventing juvenile offenders in the United States from suffering grossly disproportionate sentences. Yet, this loophole may also provide a future avenue for the Court to rule on the issue again. The Court left the window cracked, perhaps in part to see how far states would go to fling it wide open. Should a case challenge the broad interpretations of Montgomery’s exception, the Court could use it as an opportunity to close the loophole with a clear definition of what constitutes “irreparable corruption.”

The Supreme Court precedent governing juvenile life without parole sentencing has progressed remarkably over the past thirteen years. Since 2005, the parameters of sentencing in the United States’ juvenile justice system have shrunk and now more accurately reflect modern views. Public sentiment largely holds the belief that juvenile offenders should not be subjected to the same punishments as adults because the differences in culpability cannot be fairly measured in one broad stroke.

Lee Boyd Malvo’s case highlights the potential for inconsistencies in applying the Supreme Court’s decision. It demonstrates the creative ways in which state prosecutors are getting around the Court’s sweeping language through an intense focus on a broad interpretation of the irreparable corruption exception. The Fourth Circuit in this case may be more inclined to vacate Malvo’s life without parole sentences in Virginia because his sentences in Maryland have been upheld. Malvo will likely spend the rest of his life in prison because of his consecutive sentences in Maryland, therefore the appellate judge may allow new sentencing in Virginia simply to narrowly define the Montgomery exception and set a foregoing precedent. Currently, the Supreme Court’s reasoning and intentionality behind including this exception is unknown. As new juvenile criminal cases are tried across the country, the exception’s impact will likely be interpreted differently, determining whether it ultimately undermines the Supreme Court’s sweeping ruling or remains just what it is, an exception.