17 For Life

by Rachel Sharma

In the case of Miller v. Alabama, fourteen-year-old Evan Miller was tried and convicted of capital murder during the course of an arson in 2004. Because of the crime itself, Miller was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, Miller filed a motion for a new trial on the grounds that sentencing a fourteen-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole was against the 8th amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. The trial court, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and the Alabama Supreme Court had all denied this motion, until it reached the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court sided with Miller and stated that the sentencing of life without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders were against the protections in the 8th amendment of the Constitution against cruel and unusual punishments. Children were ruled constitutionally different than adults, and while this type of punishment is legal for adults, it would be disproportionate for children. From this ruling, Miller v. Alabama, another case came out.

In 1963, Henry Montgomery was found guilty of murder at the age of 17. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Based on the ruling in Miller, that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional, Montgomery appealed in 2016, arguing that this court decision was retroactive, and applied to past cases that were already decided before 2012. The Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery’s favor, holding that the rule in Miller was retroactive and applied to his case. Their logic was that Miller established a substantive constitutional rule and not a procedural one, and any substantive rule change is retroactive, and procedural ones are not. A substantive rule is beyond the line of government interference and is something that is a fundamental right. A procedural rule, on the other hand, can be changed by the government and regulates the way in which the judiciary runs. For example, the right to free speech is a substantive constitutional law. This cannot be taken away by the government for any reason. On the other hand, an example of procedural law would be anything that governs how the courts operate. These procedures can be changed by the government. As a result of this, substantive constitutional laws are retroactive because of the bearing they hold on the rights of citizens, they are fundamental. Procedures, accordingly, are not retroactive because they can shift with the time and by the government. Therefore, the Miller rule is retroactive because of Montgomery v. Louisiana.

In October 2002, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, were rocked by the D.C. Snipers, also called the Beltway Snipers. In total, the assailants of these attacks took the lives of 10 people, and critically wounded three people. When they were caught, the perpetrators were revealed to be John Allen Muhammad, 41 years old, and Lee Boyd Malvo, at only 17 years old. The two worked in concert to commit the murders and were both found guilty in a court of law. Muhammad was sentenced to death and was executed in 2009. Malvo, on the other hand, as a person under the age of 18 at the time, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time of the trial, 2003, it was legal to sentence a person under the age of 18 to life without the possibility of parole. Anything above this, such as the death penalty, goes against the 8th amendment of the Constitution and the right against cruel and unusual punishment. This rule could change with the current case, Mathena v. Malvo, and the recent cases that have shaped this issue, Miller and Montgomery.  

Malvo petitioned to vacate the charges against him under the rulings of these two cases: The substantive rule of constitutional law must be applied to his own case, Mathena v Malvo. However, the question that faces the Supreme Court in this case is whether the retroactivity in the holding of Montgomery calls for a vacation of the charges against the defendant. This case was argued in front of the Supreme Court on October 16, 2019, and while it has no holding yet, there are compelling arguments on both sides. Malvo argues that the previous rulings in Miller and Montgomery are clear: the sentence is unconstitutional and applies retroactively. Therefore, his sentence should be vacated as it is, under his interpretation of the court precedent. In his opinion, the case should not even be up for consideration of the Supreme Court. On the government’s side, they argue that there is a conflict with the interpretation of retroactivity in Montgomery, and another holding from 1989, from the case Teague v. Lane. Teague established the rule that substantive rules are retroactive and procedural rules are not. However, the lines between the two definitions can be blurred and states can have conflicting opinions on which is which. In this case, there is a gray area between the ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and the Virginia Supreme Court. This creates a question to be answered, and the government believes the Supreme Court of the United States should be the one to answer it.

The implications of this case are relevant today for a few reasons. First and foremost, an immediate effect is that Lee Boyd Malvo will go free if his sentence is vacated. Second, the courts will have clarification on the disjointed rulings. It is certain that they will give some sort of ruling that will have an effect on what happens between the Virginia Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Lastly, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Malvo, there will be other cases that come out of the woodwork. People who committed violent crimes as juveniles and were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole will be coming forward to have their sentences vacated. Whether this will be beneficial overall remains to be seen; however, the Supreme Court will have a lot to consider in the case of Mathena v. Malvo.