Argument Date: October 16, 2019

Issue(s) in the Case: 

Whether the constitutional rule articulated in Miller v. Alabama (holding mandatory sentences of life without possibility of parole unconstitutional for juvenile defenders), which was made retroactive to cases on collateral review in Montgomery v. Louisiana, provides relief not only from mandatory life without parole sentences, but also from discretionary life without parole sentences.



In 2002, then-17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad—also known as the “DC Snipers”—engaged in a series of random sniper shootings that killed 12 people and injured six others in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.[39] Mr. Malvo was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole pursuant to Virginia’s “discretionary” sentencing scheme.[40] Following the Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller and Montgomery, he sought to have his sentences vacated.[41] The district court vacated Mr. Malvo’s sentences, finding that the Court’s decision in Miller applies to all situations in which juveniles receive a life-without-parole sentence,” irrespective of whether the “penalty scheme is mandatory or discretionary.”[42] The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.[43] It held that although Mr. Malvo’s sentences were legal when imposed, they must now be vacated because the retroactive constitutional rules for sentencing juveniles adopted subsequent to his sentencings were not satisfied.[44] The court remanded Mr. Malvo’s case to the district court to determine (1) whether Mr. Malvo qualifies as one of the rare juvenile offenders who may, consistent with the Eighth Amendment, be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole because his “crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,” or (2) whether those crimes instead “reflect the transient immaturity of youth,” which would support a sentence short of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.[45]


Key Issues: 

In Montgomery, the Supreme Court confirmed that: (1) imposing a life without parole sentence on a juvenile homicide offender pursuant to a mandatory penalty scheme necessarily violates the Eighth Amendment as construed in Miller; and (2) sentencing judges also violate Miller’s rule any time they impose a discretionary life without parole sentence on a juvenile homicide offender without first concluding that the offender’s “crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,” as distinct from “the transient immaturity of youth.”[46] However, Virginia’s Supreme Court has interpreted Montgomery differently, contending that the rule from Miller only applies in mandatory, not discretionary, sentencing matters.[47] Virginia also contends that the rules from Miller and Montgomery should not apply retroactively to Mr. Malvo’s case.[48]


Importance as a Matter of Civil Rights: 

Poor Black children are most likely to feel the impact of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) practices. In its 2014 report on racial disparities in sentencing, the ACLU noted that “although Blacks constitute only about 13 percent of the U.S. population, as of 2009, Blacks constitute 28.3 percent of all lifers, 56.4 percent of those serving LWOP, and 56.1 percent of those who received LWOP for offenses committed as juveniles.”[49] A 2012 report by The Sentencing Project further evidences how JLWOP sentences are racially skewed and systematically unfair. It revealed that 32 percent of those sentenced to JLWOP grew up in public housing, 40 percent had been enrolled in special education classes, and fewer than half were attending school at the time of their offense.[50]

[39] Brief in Opposition at 3, Mathena v. Malvo, 139 S. Ct. 1317 (Oct. 19, 2018) (No. 18-217),

[40] Id. at 4.

[41] Id. at 7-8.

[42] Malvo v. Mathena, 254 F. Supp. 3d 820, 827 (E.D. Va. 2017).

[43] Malvo v. Mathena, 893 F.3d 265, 276 (4th Cir. 2018).

[44] Id. at 267.

[45] Id.

[46] Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016).

[47] Petition for Writ of Certiorari at 1, Mathena v. Malvo, 139 S. Ct. 1317 (Aug. 16, 2018) (No. 18-217),

[48] Id. at 2.

[49] Hearing on Reports of Racism in the Justice System of the United States, 153rd Session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Oct. 27, 2014) (Written Submission of the American Civil Liberties Union on Racial Disparities in Sentencing at 2),

[50] Ashley Nellis, The Sentencing Project, The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey 2-3 (2012),