Mathena v. Malvo

LII note: the oral arguments in Mathena v. Malvo are now available from Oyez.


Did Montgomery v. Louisiana expand the scope of the Miller rule—which retroactively applied to cases on collateral review the holding that mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders are unconstitutional—so that it applies to both mandatory and discretionary sentencing schemes by requiring sentencing judges to consider a juvenile defendant’s youth during sentencing?

Oral argument: 
October 16, 2019

This case asks the Supreme Court to decide whether the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit erred when it granted respondent Lee Boyd Malvo’s habeas corpus petition to reconsider his life-imprisonment-without-parole sentence, yet declined to decide whether Malvo’s sentence was mandatory or discretionary. Petitioner warden Randall Mathena argues that Malvo’s sentence must stand because the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama expressly limited availability of habeas relief to juveniles sentenced to life imprisonment without parole under mandatory sentencing schemes, and because the precedent upon which the Supreme Court based that opinion does not support expanding the rule to discretionary sentencing schemes. Malvo counters that he should be resentenced because the Supreme Court precedent and the Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana—extending Miller retroactively to cases on collateral review—requires sentencing judges to take juveniles’ youth into account during sentencing, even if the sentence occurred before Miller. Malvo further contends that even if he were sentenced pursuant to a “discretionary” sentencing scheme, his life sentence violates Miller because the sentencing judge failed to consider, on account of his juvenile status, his lessened moral blameworthiness and greater capacity for change, therefore entitling him to resentencing. The outcome of this case will affect how the criminal justice system treats juveniles and victims, whether the system will preserve the distinction between discretionary and mandatory sentencing schemes.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit erred in concluding—in direct conflict with Virginia’s highest court and other courts—that a decision of the Supreme Court, Montgomery v. Louisiana, addressing whether a new constitutional rule announced in an earlier decision, Miller v. Alabama, applies retroactively on collateral review may properly be interpreted as modifying and substantively expanding the very rule whose retroactivity was in question.


In the fall of 2002, John Allen Muhammad and 17-year-old Lee Malvo carried out the “D.C. Sniper” shootings—a series of sniper-rifle shootings in the greater Washington. D.C. area in which the pair murdered twelve individuals and injured six others. In 2003, after authorities apprehended the pair in Maryland, a grand jury in Virginia indicted Malvo on capital murder charges. Malvo presented an insanity defense at trial, contending that Muhammad brainwashed and controlled him at the time of the crimes. In 2004, the jury rejected this defense, convicted Malvo of the capital murders, and chose to sentence him under Virginia law—which, at the time, required death or life imprisonment without parole unless the sentencing judge suspended the sentence—to two terms of life imprisonment without parole. That same year, Malvo entered an Alford plea in another Virginia court pursuant to a plea agreement, pleading guilty to further capital murder and related charges in exchange for two additional terms of life imprisonment without parole.

Eight years after Malvo’s sentencings, the United States Supreme Court held, in Miller v. Alabama, that mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without parole for juvenile homicide offenders violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.Miller further established that courts imposing such a sentence on juvenile homicide offenders must first consider the juvenile offender’s youth.

In light of Miller, Malvo petitioned the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (the “District Court”) for two writs of habeas corpus, challenging his sentences of life imprisonment without parole. The District Court subsequently dismissed these petitions, finding that the Miller rule did not apply retroactively to cases on collateral review—that is, that Miller’s prohibition on mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders did not apply to those juvenile offenders already serving such a sentence. Malvo appealed the District Court’s ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (the “Fourth Circuit”), but the Fourth Circuit held off on deciding Malvo’s appeal until the Supreme Court decided the retroactive applicability of Miller. In 2016, the Supreme Court did so in Montgomery v. Louisiana, holding that Miller announced a substantive rule to be applied retroactively in cases on collateral review. The Fourth Circuit accordingly remanded Malvo’s case to the District Court to consider Montgomery’s impact on his habeas petitions.

On remand, the District Court rejected warden Randall Mathena’s argument that the sentencing judge’s ability to suspend Malvo’s sentence rendered the sentence discretionary rather than mandatory and nonetheless held that Miller applies retroactively to all cases—whether mandatory or discretionary—in which a juvenile homicide offender is sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Finding that Malvo’s youth was not considered in his sentencing, the District Court vacated Malvo’s four life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences and remanded his cases back to the Virginia state courts for resentencing in accordance with Miller and Montgomery. Mathena appealed the District Court’s ruling to the Fourth Circuit, which affirmed the District Court, likewise concluding that Malvo’s sentencing proceedings fell short of the requirements of Miller and Montgomery.

On March 18, 2019, the United States Supreme Court granted Mathena’s petition for a writ of certiorari



Mathena argues that the Fourth Circuit wrongly interpreted Montgomery when it applied the Miller rule to Malvo’s case and declined to consider whether Virginia law mandated, rather than merely allowed, Malvo’s life-imprisonment-without-parole sentence. Although Mathena acknowledges that the Eighth Amendment prevents states from indiscriminately imposing certain kinds of sentences on juveniles—such as the death penalty or life imprisonment for non-homicide crimes—he disputes the claim that Miller sweeps so broadly as to invalidate discretionary juvenile life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences. Rather, Mathena contends that Miller is narrowly limited to prohibiting mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentencing schemes for juvenile homicide offenders. Mathena bases his view on the text of Miller: he notes that the opinion “uses some version of the word ‘mandatory’ 48 times” and argues that any line that could be interpreted as stating the Court’s holding refers to mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences. Consequently, he contends that if Malvo’s life-imprisonment-without-parole sentence was discretionary under Virginia law rather than mandatory, the sentence must stand under Miller. Mathena therefore contends that the Supreme Court should send Malvo’s case back to the lower courts to determine whether Malvo’s sentence was mandatory or not.

Mathena further urges the Court to refrain from interpreting Montgomery as extending Miller to discretionary sentencing schemes because of the general principle that the Court does not unnecessarily resolve constitutional questions. As Mathena notes, both Miller and Montgomery involved juvenile homicide offenders whose life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences were mandatory. Therefore, according to Mathena, the Supreme Court should not read the rules from those cases to apply to discretionary sentences because such a reading would not be required as it would have no bearing on those cases’ outcomes.

Malvo, on the other hand, argues that Miller’s scope extends beyond mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentencing schemes for juvenile homicide offenders because it requires courts to consider a juvenile’s youth before sentencing them. In support of this argument, Malvo relies on the Court’s line of reasoning in Miller, including the observation that because juveniles are immature, vulnerable to external pressures, and insecure in their identities, they are less morally blameworthy and more capable of rehabilitation than adults. Malvo further counters that Mathena overstates the Miller opinion’s reliance on the use of the word “mandatory” when referring to sentencing schemes by pointing to language in the opinion stating that sentencing judges are required to consider how children differ from adults and how those differences should caution courts against imposing life imprisonment without parole on juvenile offenders. Accordingly, Malvo contends that sentencing judges must give a juvenile offender’s youth actual consideration, and that the number of times the Court used the term “mandatory” is irrelevant. As such, Malvo maintains that the Fourth Circuit did not err in refusing to determine whether the sentencing scheme used to sentence him was mandatory or discretionary because, either way, the sentencing court failed to consider Malvo’s youth.

Malvo further contends that at the time of his sentencing, the Virginia Supreme Court did not yet hold that Virginia trial courts may suspend life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for capital murder. Thus, Malvo asserts that no one involved in his criminal proceedings considered the possibility that he might receive less than a life-imprisonment-without-parole sentence, and as such, the sentencing judge did not weigh his youth before imposing a life sentence under Virginia law. Malvo clarifies, however, that had Virginia’s scheme been “discretionary” in the sense that the court could have suspended his sentence, his sentencing still would have run afoul of Miller due to the judge’s failure to weigh his youth.


Mathena notes that two lines of cases informed the Court’s decision in Miller. The first line of cases—establishing that children are different than adults for purposes of sentencing—Mathena states, is less directly relevant than the second line, which hold that mandatory death sentences violate the Eight Amendment. Mathena further contends that, in relying on this second line of precedent, the Court premised Miller on the idea that mandatory and discretionary life-imprisonment-without-parole sentencing schemes are constitutionally different. Indeed, as Mathena points out, the Court in Miller went through the effort of specifically identifying jurisdictions that it thought imposed mandatory, and jurisdictions that it thought imposed discretionary, life-imprisonment-without-parole sentencing schemes on juveniles.

Mathena squares his reading of Miller with Montgomery’s ruling that Miller announced a substantive rule applicable retroactively to cases on collateral review by arguing that a rule prohibiting mandatory life sentencing is substantive. Mathena conceives of a substantive rule as one that involves preventing a significant risk that a juvenile will face an unconstitutionally excessive punishment. Under Mathena’s definition of a substantive rule, he argues, the Miller rule is substantive, and Montgomery was rightly decided, because mandatory sentencing schemes necessarily involve a significant risk of an excessive punishment, whereas discretionary sentencing schemes do not.

Mathena further argues that, based on his reading of Miller, Malvo is not entitled to relief on the basis of Miller and can only argue that Montgomery itself created a new substantive rule applicable to Malvo’s case. However, Mathena points out, Malvo did not seek habeas relief based on any rule announced in Montgomery and would now be time-barred from doing so. Under federal law, Mathena states, Malvo would have had to amend his habeas petition within one year of the Court’s ruling in Montgomery to seek a claim based on that opinion. Because Malvo did not so, according to Mathena, Malvo cannot now gain relief on the basis of any new rule—if there was one—announced in Montgomery.

Malvo counters that Mathena’s characterization of Miller’s second line of precedent is too narrow and argues that the Court’s death-penalty precedents do not solely limit themselves to mandatory sentences, but rather stand for the broad principle that sentencing judges must be able to consider all mitigating circumstances before imposing the death penalty. Malvo further argues that the Miller Court’s first line of precedent distinguishing juveniles from adults—which Mathena gives little consideration to—undermines Mathena’s insistence on a limited rule against mandatory sentencing. This line of precedent, Malvo argues, is rested on the principle that juveniles have diminished moral culpability, and therefore supports an interpretation of Miller that requires sentencing judges to take a juvenile homicide offender’s diminished culpability into account. Nonetheless, even under Mathena’s construction of the precedent, Malvo notes that the Miller Court specifically identified Virginia as one of the jurisdictions that mandated life imprisonment without parole for juvenile homicide offenders.

Malvo also argues that a rule is substantive if it prevents sentencing judges from imposing certain kinds of punishment. Conversely, Malvo asserts, a rule is procedural if it merely alters the methods that sentencing judges may use to allocate punishment. Operating under these conceptions of substantive and procedural rules, Malvo contends that the distinction between mandatory and discretionary sentencing schemes is procedural, rather than substantive. As Malvo explains, the only difference between a mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentence and a discretionary one is the method by which the sentencing judge arrives at that same punishment. In both scenarios, Malvo states, the sentence is constrained by the same substantive rule—namely, that it cannot be imposed on juveniles without consideration of their youth. Thus, Malvo contends, if Miller did only apply to mandatory sentencing schemes, “Montgomery would have come out the other way” because such a rule only effects the method in which a sentencing judge arrives at their conclusion. Based on his reading that Miller’s substantive rule also covers both mandatory and discretionary sentencing schemes by requiring that sentencing judges take into account juveniles’ youth, Malvo argues that Montgomery simply decided the retroactivity of Miller. As such, Malvo maintains that he is entitled to habeas relief to be resentenced in accordance with Miller.



The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (“CJLF”), in support of Mathena, argues that individuals like Malvo, who are almost eighteen years old, are not “children” and should be considered fully culpable for their actions. CJLF points out that older juveniles commit more homicides than younger juveniles, with 17-year-old juveniles committing more homicides than children ages 14 to 16 combined. Further, the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center (“Resource Center”), also in support of Mathena, questions the wisdom of applying a bright-line rule treating anyone under age 18 as a juvenile in light of science suggesting that children psychologically mature gradually and do not instantly become mature adults the instant they turn 18. Moreover, Indiana and fourteen other states, supporting Mathena, assert that expanding Miller to discretionary sentencing schemes will infringe on states’ sovereign interests in designing their own juvenile sentencing schemes. The CJLF likewise argues that applying Miller to discretionary sentencing schemes will impede the states’ power to decide which criteria should be considered in sentencing.

Isa Nichols, and other victims who have lost family members to juvenile violence—including to Malvo’s criminal acts—argue in support of Malvo that courts must continue to recognize that although children are impulsive and easily manipulated, they are nonetheless “fundamentally redeemable.” As the Juvenile Law Center (“JLC”) and other organizations supporting Malvo assert, juveniles’ “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change” when compared to adults make it likely that a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole will be disproportionate to a juvenile offender’s culpability. Therefore, the JLC contends, even discretionary sentencing schemes can carry an increased risk that a disproportionate punishment will be imposed on a juvenile who can be rehabilitated. The JLC also argues that a majority of states have designed their juvenile sentencing schemes, based on Miller and Montgomery, to require consideration of youth during sentencing hearings. Applying Miller and Montgomery only to mandatory sentences, the JLC maintains, would undercut the states’ reliance interests on Miller and Montgomery, resulting in unjust outcomes for sentenced juveniles awaiting resentencing under Miller.


The CJLF, in support of Mathena, argues that focusing on Malvo’s resentencing unduly diverts attention away from his victims, who should be the focus of any discussion of Malvo’s crimes. The Resource Center further asserts that the District Court’s ruling that Malvo should be resentenced violates the rights of Malvo’s victims. The Resource Center contends that victims have the right to not be forced to relive the trauma of losing a loved one as the result of a resentencing procedure. The Resource Center further maintains that victims must be able to protect their interests in the finality of cases against perpetrators and in avoiding the re-traumatization that comes with a reopened sentencing proceeding in an otherwise closed case. According to the Resource Center, victims are specifically harmed by the horrors of reliving the gruesome memories, fear, and emotional trauma associated with the juvenile perpetrator’s crime.

Isa Nichols and the other juvenile-violence victims counter, in support of Malvo, that to uphold victims’ right to be heard, courts must recognize the voices of victims who believe that juvenile perpetrators should receive a second chance. The group of victims asserts that courts often assume that victims want perpetrators to receive the most severe punishment. However, the group argues that in order to ensure that victims’ rights and interests are fairly represented, courts must recognize that not all victims want their perpetrator to the maximum punishment. As such, the group of victims, which includes some of Malvo’s victims, supports Malvo’s resentencing efforts because they believe that juveniles should have the chance to express remorse and demonstrate their capacity for rehabilitation. Finally, the group of victims contends that allowing courts to resentence Malvo and other similarly-situated juveniles in accordance with Miller, will not only afford victims their right to be heard, but will honor their family members’ lives who died because of juvenile violence.

Edited by 


Additional Resources