Mathena v. Malvo: Must Judges Take Youth into Account When Sentencing Juveniles?

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Hunter Poindexter, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. Introduction

In October, the United States Supreme Court held arguments in Mathena v. Malvo.[1] Mathena is premised around an infamous string of shootings which occurred in the Washington, D.C. area in 2002. At issue in Mathena is whether the Court’s decisions in Miller v. Alabama[2] and Montgomery v. Louisiana[3] apply only to prohibit mandatory life without parole (“LWOP”) sentencing schemes for juveniles, or whether the decisions more broadly require a judge to take into account a defendant’s youth when considering a LWOP sentence. This blog will first discuss the Court’s precedent in both Miller and Montgomery. The article next analyzes the background of Mathena, as well as the arguments made by each party. Finally, this post will explain the implications the Court’s decision in Mathena could have on past and future youth offenders.

II. Background

A. Miller v. Alabama

In Miller, the Court was tasked with determining whether statutorily-mandated sentences of LWOP may be imposed on juveniles.[4] The petitioners, Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, had both been sentenced to LWOP in Alabama and Arkansas, respectively.[5] At age fourteen, Miller killed his neighbor after hitting him in the head with a baseball bat and setting his home on fire.[6] The District Attorney tried Miller as an adult and charged him with murder in the course of arson, and Miller was subsequently convicted.[7] At the time of Miller’s conviction, Alabama imposed a mandatory minimum LWOP sentence for the crime, and therefore, the trial judge sentenced Miller to LWOP.[8] In the Arkansas case, Jackson was involved in a robbery in which one of Jackson’s friends shot and killed a video store clerk.[9] Even though Jackson did not pull the trigger, the Arkansas prosecutor tried him as an adult.[10] Jackson was ultimately convicted of capital felony murder and aggravated robbery.[11] Like Alabama, Arkansas’s mandatory sentencing scheme required the imposition of a minimum sentence of LWOP.[12]

Both petitioners in Miller argued that mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.[13] In its opinion, the Court discussed at-length prior precedent explaining how juvenile offenders must be treated differently in the sentencing phase.[14] Specifically, the Court focused its analysis on the decisions in Graham v. Florida[15] and Roper v. Simmons,[16] both of which provided substantive rules on how youths may be sentenced.[17]

The Miller court ultimately concluded “that the Eighth Amendment forbids a mandatory sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.”[18] Notably, the Court also stated that its decision “require[s] [a sentencer] to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”[19]

B. Montgomery v. Louisiana

In Montgomery, the Court considered the question of whether Miller applied retroactively.[20] The petitioner in Montgomery was seventeen-years-old when he killed a deputy sheriff in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1963.[21] The petitioner was initially convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned his conviction.[22] At his second trial, the jury returned a verdict of “‘guilty without capital punishment.’”[23] Louisiana law mandated a sentence of LWOP against the petitioner.[24] The petitioner contended that the Miller decision should apply retroactively, and therefore, petitioner would subsequently have to be re-sentenced.[25]

The Court first determined whether it had the authority to apply Miller retroactively under its prior precedent.[26] In Teague v. Lane,[27] the Court held that new constitutional rules of criminal procedure do not apply retroactively to convictions that were final when the rule was decided.[28] However, Teague does allow for two exceptions which must apply retroactively: (1) substantive rules of constitutional law; and (2) “watershed rules of criminal procedure” implicating fundamental fairness.[29] Substantive rules are those which “forbid[] ‘criminal punishment of certain primary conduct’ or prohibit[] ‘a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense.’”[30]

The Court held that Miller indeed announced a substantive rule because it “rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for a ‘class of defendants because of their status’ – that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth.”[31] It is important to note that the Montgomery court also stated that “Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but ‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,’ . . .” [32]

C. Mathena v. Malvo

In October, the Court held arguments in Mathena. The facts surrounding Mathena are somewhat notorious. In 2002, forty-one-year-old John Muhammed and seventeen-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo shot and killed ten people in the Washington D.C. area.[33] The shootings became commonly referred to as the “D.C. sniper attacks.”[34] For his role in the shootings, Malvo was charged with capital murder in the commission of an act of terrorism, as well as capital murder of more than one person within a three-year-period.[35] Under Virginia law, defendants over the age of sixteen and convicted of capital murder only had two possible sentences: life in prison or the death penalty.[36] Virginia had previously done away with parole for felony crimes, and therefore a sentence of life would be LWOP.[37] Malvo was subsequently given four sentences of LWOP.[38]

After the Montgomery decision, the Virginia Supreme Court held in Jones v. Commonwealth[39] (“Jones II”) that Miller did not apply to Virginia because the “capital-murder sentencing scheme was not ‘mandatory.’”[40] Notably, the court in Jones II deemed Miller only to mean “that a sentencer ‘must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances’” when sentencing a juvenile to LWOP.[41] While trial judges only had the opportunity to sentence an individual convicted of capital-murder to LWOP, prior precedent from the Virginia Supreme Court acknowledged that the judges may nonetheless suspend a LWOP sentence.[42] Therefore, the Jones II court held that a trial judge may consider factors such as youth when determining whether the court should suspend the sentence, and thus the sentencing scheme was not mandatory.[43]

Upon petition of habeus corpus, a federal district court vacated Malvo’s sentences.[44] The district court concluded that Miller held that a LWOP sentence may only be given to those juveniles “whose crimes reflect ‘transient immaturity’ rather than ‘irreparable corruption.’”[45] The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court, holding that “the sentencer must actually ‘take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.’”[46]

On appeal to the Supreme Court, petitioner Randall Mathena, the prison warden, argued that Miller stands for the premise that the Eighth Amendment only prohibits sentencing schemes which mandate LWOP sentences for juveniles.[47] Alternatively, respondent Malvo argued that Miller held more broadly that sentencers must “‘consider[] youth and attendant characteristics’” when determining whether to mete a LWOP sentence to a juvenile.[48]

III. Discussion

While the Court will not likely rule on Mathena until 2020, the oral arguments appeared to lean somewhat in favor of respondent Malvo. When questioning Mathena’s counsel, Justice Kagan acknowledged that she read Miller to stand more broadly for the premise that “youth matters.”[49] Furthermore, Justice Kagan stated that the “lesson of Miller” is that a “judge or jury . . . has to take . . .  youth into account.”[50] Justice Kagan’s comments are particularly interesting and insightful in the context of Miller, as Justice Kagan drafted its majority opinion. In addition to Justice Kagan, Justice Kavanaugh also appeared to show some support for Malvo’s position. Notably, Justice Kavanaugh asked Mathena’s counsel whether a discretionary scheme would be enough to satisfy Miller if the Court held Miller to mean that only juveniles who are “incorrigible” may be sentenced to LWOP.[51] With this line of questioning, Justice Kavanaugh implied some understanding and support for Malvo’s position.[52]

Should the Court rule in Malvo’s favor, Mathena has the potential to create significant changes in the way youth offenders are sentenced. Moreover, Mathena would likely impact other inmates who were sentenced to LWOP as juveniles, even if those inmates were sentenced under non-mandatory schemes. In its narrowest sense, Miller prohibits sentencing schemes that impose mandatory LWOP sentences on youth. Applied retroactively under Montgomery, this narrow interpretation gave over 2,000 inmates the opportunity to be resentenced.[53] Under a broader interpretation – that sentencers must always take into account a juvenile offender’s youth – the implications could range far beyond those created under the narrower interpretation. If the Court holds that Miller and Montgomery require judges to always take into account an offender’s youth before meting a LWOP sentence, some inmates might be able to challenge their sentence on the grounds that the sentencer did not adequately take their youth into account. With this implication in mind, Mathena could create procedural issues in courts. As Justices Sotomayor and Kavanaugh noted in oral argument, judges often take into account sentencing factors for defendants without stating on the record that they have considered each individual factor.[54] There are likely offenders who were sentenced as juveniles to non-mandatory LWOP whose judges did not specifically state at sentencing that the offender’s youth was considered. The consequence of which would potentially create a cascade of requests for resentencing, even if the judge took youth into account without expressly acknowledging it on the record.

Even considering this implication, a broad reading of Mathena is in-line with much of the Court’s recent decisions on juvenile offenders. Over the past fifteen years, the Court has taken a rather sympathetic stance on juvenile offenders, generally finding juveniles to be more immature and vulnerable than adult offenders.[55] While prohibiting mandatory LWOPs provides protections for juveniles, requiring a system in which a juvenile’s age must be taken into account would help ensure that juveniles who acted out of “transient immaturity” would not be “irrevocably sentence[ed]” to prison for the rest of their lives.[56]

IV. Conclusion

With its decisions in Miller and Montgomery, the Supreme Court protected juveniles from being sentenced to LWOP under mandatory sentencing schemes. However, the Court now has the opportunity to significantly expand these protections by requiring judges to take a juvenile offender’s youth into account whenever they consider a LWOP sentence. While the Justices appeared to lean toward Malvo’s position during oral arguments, accepting this broad interpretation could open the door for a flood of resentencing requests by youth offenders sentenced to LWOP prior to Mathena. Nonetheless, the Court in recent years has taken a number of steps to protect juveniles in the criminal justice system, and finding for Malvo would provide even greater protection for youth offenders.


[1] No. 18-217 (2019).

[2] 567 U.S. 460 (2012).

[3] 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016).

[4] 567 U.S. at 465.

[5] Id. at 466-69.

[6] Id. at 467-68

[7] Id. at 468-69.

[8] Id. at 469.

[9] Id. at 465-66.

[10] Id. at 466

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 470-78.

[15] 560 U.S. 48 (2010) (holding that youth offenders may not be sentenced to LWOP for nonhomicide crimes).

[16] 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (holding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits death sentences for youth offenders).

[17] Miller, 567 U.S. 470-78.

[18] Id. at 479.

[19] Id. at 480.

[20] 136 S. Ct. at 725.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. at 725-26 (citing State v. Montgomery, 242 So. 2d 818 (La. 1970)).

[24] Id. at 726.

[25] Id. at 727.

[26] Id. at 728.

[27] 489 U.S. 288 (1989).

[28] Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 728.

[29] Id. (citing Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 330).

[30] Id. (citing Penry, 492 U.S.at 330).

[31] Id. at 734 (citing Penry, 492 U.S. at 330).

[32] Id. (citing Miller, 567 U.S. at 479-80).

[33] Tucker Higgins, DC sniper Lee Boyd Malvo to ask Supreme Court for resentencing in case over youth punishment, CNBC (October 16, 2019), https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/16/dc-sniper-lee-boyd-malvo-to-ask-supreme-court-for-new-sentence.html.

[34] Id.

[35] Brief for Respondent at 8, Mathena v. Malvo, No. 18-217 (Aug. 20, 2019).

[36] Id.

[37] Id. at 9.

[38] Id. at 10.

[39] 795 S.E.2d 705 (Va. 2017).

[40] Brief for Respondent at 14, Mathena v. Malvo, No. 18-217 (Aug. 20, 2019) (citing Jones II, 795 S.E.2d at 713).

[41] Id. (citing Jones II, 795 S.E.2d at 708).

[42] Id. at 14-15.

[43] Id. at 15 (citing Jones II, 795 S.E.2d at 711-13).

[44] Id. at 16.

[45] Id.

[46] Id. (citing Pet. App. 14a)

[47] Brief for Petitioner at 9, Mathena v. Malvo, No. 18-217 (Jun. 11, 2019).

[48] Brief for Respondent at 19, Mathena v. Malvo, No. 18-217 (Aug. 20, 2019) (citing Miller, 567 U.S. at 483).

[49] Oral Argument at 7:44, Mathena v. Malvo, No. 18-217 (2019), https://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/18-217.

[50] Id.

[51] Id. at 13:37.

[52] See Id.

[53] Matt Ford, A Retroactive Break for Juvenile Offenders, The Atlantic (January 26, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/montgomery-alabama-supreme-court/426897/.

[54] Oral Argument at 33:54, 36:38, Mathena v. Malvo, No. 18-217 (2019), https://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/18-217.

[55] See Miller, 567 U.S. 460, Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. 718, Roper, 543 U.S. 551, Graham, 560 U.S. 48.

[56] Miller, 567 U.S. at 480-81.

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