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D.C. Sniper Case Chance to Curb ‘Escape Hatch,’ DOJ Says

June 19, 2019, 5:07 PM

The Trump administration is pushing the Supreme Court for a hard line when it comes to life sentences for juvenile defenders, including the D.C. sniper defendant Lee Boyd Malvo.

The Supreme Court has limited life sentences without parole for young offenders in a recent line of cases. Those limits should apply only when the court or jury have no choice but to sentence the juvenile to life, not where the sentence relies on a fact finder’s discretion, the Justice Department argued in its June 18 friend-of-the-court brief.

“No decision of this Court should be construed to provide an escape hatch,” that would allow defendants to invalidate life sentences for “heinous crimes,” the Justice Department said.

Here, for example, a Richmond-based federal appellate court vacated Malvo’s four life sentences over his part in the infamous 2002 D.C. sniper murders.

Malvo and John Allen Muhammad murdered a dozen people, seriously injured six others, and terrorized the Washington area in a nearly two-month shooting spree throughout the fall of 2002.

Muhammad was executed in 2009, but Malvo, who was 17 when he committed the murders, received only life sentences without the possibility of parole from a Virginia jury. He’s facing six additional life sentences in Maryland.

But under a 2012 Supreme Court decision, young offenders can’t receive life sentences without the possibility of parole unless a judge or jury specifically finds that the crime reflects “irreparable corruption.” A number of federal courts have concluded that the rule applies to discretionary life sentences, as well as those that are mandatory under the applicable federal law.

The court should make clear that the ruling only applies to mandatory schemes, the Trump administration said.

The Supreme Court recently read the 2012 ruling broadly, saying in 2016 that it applies to sentences that were imposed even before the high court announced its rule.

A key vote in both of those cases, however, was Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has since retired. His replacement, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, is expected to read the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment—under which the cases were decided—more narrowly.

It’s unclear how many sentences the court’s ruling would affect if it determines that the prohibition applies to discretionary sentences too. But more than a dozen states filed a friend-of-the court brief arguing that such a ruling could invalidate their sentencing schemes as well.

The justices will hear the case during their 2019 term, which starts in early October.

The case is Mathena v. Malvo, U.S., No. 18-217, Solicitor General’s amicus brief filed 6/18/19.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com

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