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Md. high court orders resentencing of Beltway sniper as juvenile offender

A sharply divided Maryland high court Friday ordered the resentencing of a man serving six life terms for an October 2002 killing spree in Montgomery County at age 17, saying the sentencing judge did not make the requisite finding that the juvenile killer was “incorrigible” before consigning him to die in prison.

Lee Boyd Malvo’s life sentences without possible parole for participating in the “Beltway sniper” killings violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment in the absence of a specific finding of incorrigibility, the Court of Appeals said in its 4-3 decision.

Sending the case back for resentencing — and the possibility of such a finding — the majority cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision and its later rulings that life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional unless the youngsters are found to be “incorrigible,” or hopelessly incapable of remorse and rehabilitation.

The justices followed Miller with decisions in Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016 and Jones v. Mississippi in 2021.

The Court of Appeals said the sentencing judge was unclear whether Malvo was a hopeless case. Montgomery County Circuit Judge James L. Ryan stated before the 2006 sentencing that Malvo was “a convicted murderer” but was likely vulnerable, impressionable and under the sway of John Allen Muhammad, Malvo’s adult co-defendant and likely mastermind of the Beltway killings.

“These statements lead to two equally reasonable, though conflicting, inferences as to the sentencing judge’s view on whether Mr. Malvo was ‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption’ and thus was constitutionally eligible under the subsequent Supreme Court cases for a sentence of life without parole,” Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote for the majority and quoted from Miller.

“A third, and perhaps more likely, inference is that the sentencing judge, who in 2006 had no reason to predict the Supreme Court’s development of that standard, did not consider it,” added McDonald, a retired judge sitting by special assignment. “Here, it is unclear at best whether Mr. Malvo’s sentencing proceeding complies with the Eighth Amendment constraint announced in Miller, made retroactive in Montgomery, and affirmed in Jones. Accordingly we shall remand to the circuit court for resentencing.”

McDonald stated the resentencing order may be “academic” insofar as Malvo would first have to be granted parole in Virginia where he is serving life sentences for Beltway murders there.

The Maryland attorney general’s office declined to comment on the court’s decision beyond stating it was “reviewing the opinion.”

The Maryland public defender’s appellate division, which represented Malvo, did not immediately respond to a message Friday seeking comment on the ruling.

McDonald was joined by Judges Brynja M. Booth, Jonathan Biran and Joseph M. Getty, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

The dissenting judges – Shirley M. Watts, Michele D. Hotten and Steven B. Gould – stated that Ryan had in fact considered Malvo’s youth and impressionability but concluded the cold-blooded murders showed incorrigibility, though the judge never used that term.

Hotten, in her dissent, cited the Supreme Court’s holding in Jones that deference is owed to a judge’s sentence of life in prison even in the absence of an express finding of the juvenile’s incorrigibility.

“No sentencing judge is unaware that youth entails certain infirmities in decision making due to immaturity or that juveniles generally have a greater capacity to reform than adults,” Hotten wrote. “To say that a sentencing judge, who has discretion and is tasked with considering mitigating and aggravating factors prior to sentencing a juvenile offender, would not consider an offender’s youth and its attendant characteristics as mitigating factors simply because he or she does not yet have the benefit of reading the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller, contradicts both common sense and the express holding of Jones.”

Watts, in her dissent, said a resentencing is not warranted because Ryan weighed Malvo’s youth against the severity of the slayings.

“The reality is that it is difficult to conceive of more egregious offenses committed by a juvenile than those committed by Mr. Malvo,” Watts wrote.

“Mr. Malvo’s murders were numerous, carefully planned, involved random victims whom he did not know, took place in public over a prolonged period of time, and terrorized multiple communities,” Watts added. “In sum, Mr. Malvo engaged in a series of arbitrary public executions of people who happened to be outdoors. The record reflects that although the circuit court considered Mr. Malvo’s youth, it determined, among other things, that the nature of the offenses outweighed the circumstance that he was 17 years old when he committed the offenses.”

Gould joined Hotten’s and Watts’ dissents but did not write separately.

Muhammad, Malvo’s co-defendant, was executed in 2009 following his first-degree murder conviction in Virginia for a sniper slaying committed in that state.

The Court of Appeals issued its decision in Lee Boyd Malvo v. State of Maryland, No. 29, September Term 2021.