WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Lee Boyd Malvo, better known as one of the Washington, D.C., snipers, was just a teenager when he learned how he would spend the rest of his time here on Earth. Fifteen years ago, on March 10, 2004, a Virginia judge and jury sentenced the native Jamaican to life imprisonment without parole for his role in carrying out a notorious three-week killing spree that claimed 10 lives in the D.C. area.
Malvo escaped with his life, but 22 other juvenile offenders like him weren't so fortunate. They were executed for committing heinous acts of violence when they were minors, a practice since ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2005.
"Obviously, we have different views in Maryland than Virginia regarding whether juveniles should be given the death penalty," said then-Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler during a 2002 press conference following arrests in the sniper case that garnered national attention.
Malvo was just 17, technically a child, when he partnered with John Allen Muhammad, a man he considered a father figure. Together, the pair gunned down people at random as they went about their everyday lives. One man was shot as he mowed the lawn outside a car dealership, another as she quietly read a book on a bench. Others were eating, shopping, and pumping gas when they took their final breaths. The violence that transcended economic, racial, and gender lines gripped the area with sense of panic, knowing that anyone, at any moment, could be next.
Hiding in the trunk of their modified Chevrolet Caprice, Malvo and Muhammad took the lives of 10 people, including a bus driver, an FBI analyst, a carpenter and a Vietnam veteran. They were eventually apprehended by law enforcement on Oct. 24, 2002. The two were sleeping in their vehicle at a Maryland rest stop when police surrounded them.
Throughout the two trials and subsequent years of appeals, Muhammad asserted his innocence, but that wasn't enough for the Virginia jury and judge presiding over the case. He lived the remainder of his days in a jail cell before his execution by lethal injection in November 2009.
His teenage accomplice, however, would not succumb to the same fate. Though 17 at the time of the crimes, a grand jury in Fairfax County, Virginia, indicted Malvo as an adult on capital murder charges, according to court documents. That allowed the prosecutor's office to seek the death penalty. Malvo's counsel aimed to spare their client's life by arguing that he was Muhammad's pawn, a victim of mental manipulation. A verdict arrived in December 2003 in which the jury "having considered all of the evidence in aggravation and mitigation of the offense," "fix[ed] his punishment at imprisonment for life" for each of his two capital murder convictions.
At the time of Malvo's sentencing, public opinion regarding the execution of juvenile offenders had already begun to shift, as evidenced by the Supreme Court's decision to review such a case. In January 2004, just one month after the jury recommended a life imprisonment sentence for Malvo, the highest court in the United States took on Roper v. Simmons. The justices would ultimately find the practice of executing juveniles "inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society" in May 2005.
"We argued that 18 is the natural age. It's an age that's reflected almost universally whenever legislators have to find a dividing line between adolescence and adulthood for purposes of driving and signing contracts, entering marriage agreements."
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1985 nearly two dozen people have been executed for murders they committed when they were juveniles. Texas has done it more than any other state with 13 executions of juvenile offenders. Virginia is next, executing three men who committed murders in their youth.
Malvo's case continues to grind through the court because of a 2012 Supreme Court decision that ruled mandatory life sentences for juveniles without the possibility of parole unconstitutional. The justices also declared that the decision be applied retroactively, which opened the door for Malvo's lawyers to appeal his case and ask a judge to reconsider their client's life sentences.
It's just the latest chapter in a true crime story that continues to captivate people across the country.
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