Mathena v. Malvo: Strengthening Juvenile Sentencing Jurisprudence or Halting Its Progress?

Micah Millsaps*

Mathena v. Malvo is the latest case to reach the Supreme Court in a series of milestone cases that have reshaped juvenile sentencing jurisprudence.  See Tom Jackman, Supreme Court to Consider Whether Sniper Lee Boyd Malvo Should Be Resentenced, Wash. Post (Oct. 14, 2019, 6:30 AM),  Over the past two decades, scientific developments indicating an inherent difference between juvenile and adult offenders have influenced the Court’s decisions governing juvenile sentencing.  Id.  Evidence of a child’s “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences” lessens their moral culpability in comparison to adults and heightens their ability to be reformed, making children less deserving of the most severe punishments.  Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 472, 475 (2012).  To avoid violating the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment, the Court has given considerable weight to such evidence in determining the appropriate sentencing scheme to implement in cases that involve juvenile offenders.  See id. at 471.  In furtherance of this objective, the Court barred the death penalty as a possible punishment for juvenile offenders in Roper v. SimmonsSee Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005).  Moreover, the Court in Graham v. Florida held that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the chance of parole for non-homicide crimes is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.  See Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 82 (2010).  Graham’s holding was later extended by Miller v. Alabama to include juveniles convicted of homicide crimes.  See Miller, 567 U.S. at 489.  Three years later, Montgomery v. Louisiana made the Miller decision apply retroactively.  See Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 736 (2016).  Most recently, Mathena v. Malvo was argued before the Supreme Court in October of 2019, and it highlighted the major issues with the varying interpretations of Miller and the lack of uniform application of its standard across the jurisdictions.  See Amy Howe, Argument Analysis: “D.C. Sniper” Case Could Hinge on Kavanaugh, SCOTUSBlog (Oct. 16, 2019, 4:28 PM),

I.  Miller v. Alabama: Conflicting Interpretations

The Court’s decision in Miller has been open to interpretation, leading to disparate treatment across jurisdictions for those appealing life without parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles.  See RJ Vogt, DC Sniper Case Stokes Debate Over Juvenile Life Sentences, Law360 (Oct. 6, 2019, 8:02 PM),  Many states apply a broad interpretation of the Court’s holding in Miller by interpreting it to apply not only to mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders, but also to discretionary sentencing schemes.  See Brief of Amici Curiae Juvenile Law Center et al. in Support of Respondent Lee Boyd Malvo at 10–13, Mathena v. Malvo, 139 S. Ct. 1317 (2019) (No. 18-217), WL 4512748.  States that apply this interpretation seem to focus primarily on the underlying goal highlighted in Miller, which was established in Roper and Graham, rather than focusing on the specific language of the case’s holding.  See id.  Connecticut and Washington are among those who have adopted this broad interpretation.  See id.  For example, in a 2015 decision, the Supreme Court of Connecticut opined that Miller should be interpreted more broadly under the reasoning that “the dictates set forth in Miller may be violated even when the sentencing authority has discretion to impose a lesser sentence than life without parole if it fails to give due weight to evidence that Miller deemed constitutionally significant before determining that such a severe punishment is appropriate.”  State v. Riley, 110 A.3d 1205, 1214 (Conn. 2015).  The Supreme Court of Washington came to a similar conclusion in 2017 holding that “Miller’s reasoning clearly shows that it applies to any juvenile homicide offender who might be sentenced to die in prison without a meaningful opportunity to gain early release based on demonstrated rehabilitation.”  See State v. Ramos, 387 P.3d 650, 660 (Wash. 2017).

Many states, however, have read Miller more narrowly, interpreting the Court’s holding to apply only to juvenile offenders who were sentenced to life in prison without parole under a mandatory sentencing scheme.  See Brief of Indiana et al. as Amici Curiae in Support of Petitioner at 11, Mathena v. Malvo, 139 S. Ct. 1317 (2019) (No. 18-217), WL 2522625.  These states are of the opinion that the Court did not prescribe a specific “formula” for determining whether to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole; it simply required that “age and attendant circumstances be considered.”  Id. at 14.  These states further claim that “[i]n any sentencing hearing—and certainly in any case in which a juvenile is charged with murder—the defendant’s attorney will be tasked with bringing to the sentencer’s attention all mitigating factors, including the defendant’s ‘youth and attendant characteristics.’”  Id. at 15–16.  In cases where life in prison without parole is a discretionary sentence, “[t]he sentencer—whether a judge or a jury—will then consider all permissible factors in deciding what sentence would best serve the interests of deterrence, punishment, and rehabilitation.”  Id. at 16.

II.  Mathena v. Malvo

The lack of a definitive interpretation of the Court’s decision in Miller is precisely the issue under review in Mathena v. Malvo.  Robert Barnes, Supreme Court Seems Divided Over Whether Beltway Sniper Deserves Resentencing, Wash. Post (Oct. 16, 2019, 5:47 PM),  Lee Boyd Malvo was seventeen when he and his “father figure,” John Allen Muhammad, committed multiple random murders spanning Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.  Vogt, supra.  After standing trial, Malvo was sentenced to four life sentences without the possibility of parole in Virginia and received another six in Maryland.  Denise Lavoie, He Was 17 During D.C. Sniper Shootings. 16 Years Later, Lee Boyd Malvo Is Seeking a Lower Sentence, Balt. Sun (Jan. 23, 2018, 4:15 PM),  In the wake of Miller, Malvo appealed his life sentences in Virginia but to no avail.  See Brief for Respondent at 13, Mathena, 139 S. Ct. 1317 (No. 18-217).

While Malvo’s appeal was pending, the Court decided Montgomery, which made the Miller decision apply retroactively.  See id.  Malvo argued that his age and the attendant circumstances were not given due consideration during his initial trial in 2003, therefore entitling him to a resentencing under Miller and Montgomery collectively.  See id. at 18–19.  The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia agreed that in light of the Court’s decisions in Miller and Montgomery, Malvo was entitled to relief.  See Malvo v. Mathena, 254 F. Supp. 3d 820, 835 (E.D. Va. 2017).  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision and held that Malvo was entitled to resentencing under the rules set forth in Miller and MontgomerySee Malvo v. Mathena, 893 F.3d 265, 277 (4th Cir. 2018).  Virginia appealed the Fourth Circuit’s decision, claiming that Malvo is not entitled to resentencing under the standard set forth in Miller and made retroactive in Montgomery.  See Rowe, supra.  The Supreme Court granted Virginia’s petition for review.  See id.

During oral arguments, the Justices gave little indication as to how the case would ultimately be decided.  Justice Kagan—who authored the Miller opinion—seemed to support Malvo’s interpretation, which recognized the underlying goal of the case rather than the specific language used by the Court in MillerSee Barnes, supra.  During oral arguments, Justice Kagan stated: “[Miller is] a 30-page opinion, and it can be summarized in two words, which is that ‘youth matters,’ and that you have to consider youth in making these sorts of sentencing determinations.”  Transcript of Oral Argument at 10, Mathena v. Malvo, 139 S. Ct. 1317 (No. 18-217).  Justice Kagan further elaborated on the language used in Miller, stating that “it talks a lot about mandatory schemes because a mandatory scheme was in front of it, but the entire reasoning was about how much youth matters and how a judge or a jury, whoever the sentencer is, has to take that youth into account.”  Id. at 10–11.  Justice Alito, on the other hand, favored a more direct reading, pointing out that the Miller opinion directly stated that it only barred mandatory life without parole sentences.  See id.  Justice Kavanaugh seemed to suggest that discretionary sentences provided a meaningful opportunity for sentencers—whether judge or jury—to consider the factors established by the Court in MillerSee id.  However, he gave little indication of his position in the matter.  See id.  By the end of the oral argument, it remained unclear as to how the Justices interpreted the holding in Miller and how such interpretations would affect their decision in Mathena v. Malvo.

III.  Conclusion

The central issue in Mathena v. Malvo evinces the need for further clarification of the Court’s holding in Miller and a more definitive scope for determining when juveniles serving life sentences without parole are entitled to resentencing.  See Part II, supra.  The Court’s decision in this case will have little impact on Malvo himself, as he is currently serving ten life sentences.  See Barnes, supra.  However, the impact on other juveniles sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole will be significant.  See id.  If the Court rules in favor of Malvo, choosing to expand the applicable rule in Miller to discretionary as well as mandatory sentences, the eleven other juveniles currently serving life sentences in Virginia will have a chance to be resentenced.  See Howe, supra.  If the Court chooses not to extend the interpretation of Miller relied on by Malvo, those juveniles currently awaiting a chance for resentencing in states accepting the broader interpretation of Miller will be prevented from doing so, and their hopes of ever living beyond the walls of a prison will again be forestalled.  See id.

*Micah Millsaps is a second-year day student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she is a staff editor for Law Review and a member of the Royal Graham Shannonhouse III Honor Society. Micah is currently a law clerk for Dan Goldstein, a research assistant for Professor Colin Starger, and an MSBA-UB Business Law Clerkship Fellow.

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