Judge to hear D.C. sniper Malvo's challenge to life sentences in Maryland

A Montgomery County judge is set to hear arguments Thursday in a case challenging the life sentences given to a man who pleaded guilty in the 2002 sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington area.

Lee Boyd Malvo, 32, claims the six life-without-parole terms he received in Montgomery County have been rendered illegal by U.S. Supreme Court decisions saying mandatory life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles except in rare cases.

His case is the most high-profile of a number of challenges to such sentences throughout Maryland.

Malvo was 17 when he took part in the attacks that left 10 people dead and three wounded in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. His accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, was 41 at the time. Muhammad was executed in 2009 in Virginia.

Six of the killings happened in Montgomery County. Victims were going about their daily lives — mowing a lawn, pumping gas, vacuuming a minivan, for example — when they were shot.

Last month, a federal judge in Virginia ruled the life sentences Malvo received in that state must be reconsidered in light of the Supreme Court rulings, which came after Malvo was sentenced. The Virginia attorney general plans to appeal that decision.

In Maryland, Malvo filed a motion seeking a new sentence in January, and the hearing is set for Thursday in Montgomery Circuit Court. Malvo pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder in 2006.

Malvo will be represented by James Johnston, who directs Maryland Office of the Public Defender's Youth Resentencing Project. The office filed a number of motions seeking new sentences in cases around Maryland for people serving lengthy sentences who were juveniles at the time of their offenses.

"Lee Malvo is no less deserving of a new sentencing simply because it is a high-profile case," said Johnston said. "We've asked for a new sentencing hearing and that is what we believe Mr. Malvo is entitled to receive, just like every other juvenile serving life without parole in Maryland."

He said the Supreme Court decisions mean Malvo and others should have the opportunity to present mitigating evidence and "highlight the fact that children are constitutionally different from adults."

"Children make poor, impulsive choices, children do not control their own environments, and, most importantly, children have the capacity for change," Johnston said.

The Montgomery County state's attorney's office has asked the court to deny the defense motion, according to court filings in the case.

"So many people were affected by the sniper cases and we believe this individual should be held accountable for his crimes," said Ramon Korionoff, spokesman for the state's attorney's office.

Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy will not comment publicly ahead of the hearing, Korionoff said.

But in court filings, prosecutors argues that the Supreme Court rulings cited by the defense — known as Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana — do not apply to Malvo's case because those cases dealt with mandatory sentences.

"Unlike Miller and Montgomery, the life-without-parole sentences imposed in this case were not mandatory," prosecutors wrote. "Under the plea agreement, the court had the discretion to impose any sentence authorized by the first degree murder statute."

The state also contends the court already considered factors including Malvo's age, background, role in the crime and other factors when it imposed the initial sentence.

"Although there was evidence that Malvo was under the sway of his older accomplice, Malvo was no mere puppet of Muhammad's," the filing states.

Sonia Wills, the mother of victim Conrad Johnson, said she didn't know about the scheduled hearing until contacted by a reporter.

A bus driver and father of two, Johnson, 35, was killed in Silver Spring at about 6 a.m., as he stood on the steps of his parked bus.

"I just hope they don't overturn his sentence," said Wills of Malvo. "That would be a slap in all our faces."

Now living in Texas, Wills said she learned about the Virginia decision from a friend who lives in Maryland. A few days later, she saw it on the news.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "I'm very displeased the family has been blindsided like that."

Wills said she does not believe that Malvo's age should be a factor in his sentence.

"He was old enough to understand and realize what he was doing," Wills said.

Malvo is not scheduled to appear at the hearing Thursday, Johnston said. He is serving the Virginia sentences at a state prison there.

Separate from the individual challenges to juvenile life sentences, the ACLU of Maryland has sued Gov. Larry Hogan and other state officials, alleging that the state parole system for juveniles sentenced to life is unconstitutional.

That case, filed last year, is pending in U.S. District Court.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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