Mathena v. Malvo: The Scope of Miller and its Ban on Juvenile Life-Sentences

By Austin Moylan.With the January 2020 release of the film Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson is becoming a household name. But as the general public becomes acquainted with his impressive resume for perhaps the first time, those in the criminal defense community have their eyes set on the Supreme Court, awaiting its decision in Mathena v. Malvo, a case that will clarify the scope of the Court’s holding in Miller v. Alabama, a landmark 2012 decision fought for by Stevenson himself.

In the early 2000s, Stevenson was one of many individuals in the legal community fighting against certain juvenile sentencing practices. Specifically, there existed opposition to both the death penalty and to life sentences for juveniles, whose “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change” made those types of sentences seem unjustly harsh. Beginning with Roper v. Simmons in 2005, which banned the death penalty for crimes committed as a juvenile, the Court decided a series of cases in response to the growing criticism of juvenile justice.

Roper was followed by Graham v. Florida, a 2010 case in which the Court struck down sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders of non-homicide crimes. The aforementioned Miller decision followed just two years later.

In Miller, the Court extended its Graham decision, holding mandatory life sentences without parole as unconstitutional for juveniles, even in cases of homicide. The Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization founded by Stevenson in 1989, argued Miller before the Court.

One question Miller left open was that of retroactivity; that is, whether the ban on mandatory life sentences without parole applied to those individuals who had already received such a sentence. In its 2016 holding in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court answered in the affirmative, ruling that prisoners who had been given such sentences prior to Miller were to see their cases re-sentenced or be considered for parole.

The case currently pending before the Court, Mathena v. Malvo, addresses another question raised in Miller: whether the distinction between mandatory and discretionary sentences matters.

The Case – Mathena v. Malvo

In 2002, Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad killed 17 people and injured 10 others in a shooting and robbery spree that spanned 10 months and seven states. The shootings culminated in a series of attacks that became known as the D.C. sniper attacks. The two were apprehended late October and ultimately convicted of multiple counts of capital murder. Muhammad was sentenced to death and executed in 2009. Malvo, who was 17 years old at the time of the attacks, was given four terms of life imprisonment without parole.

At the time of Malvo’s sentencing, Virginia law required death or life without parole for his offenses. The law did, however, allow the sentencing judge the option to suspend the sentence. This seemingly innocuous detail is important because it could be argued that the judge’s ability to suspend the sentence rendered the sentence discretionary, rather than mandatory.

Following the Court’s holdings in Miller and Montgomery, Malvo challenged his sentences of life without parole, arguing the two cases rendered his sentences unconstitutional. The District Court did not decide whether Malvo’s sentence was mandatory and held that Miller applied retroactively to all cases in which a juvenile was sentenced to life without parole. It then vacated Malvo’s sentences and remanded the case to Virginia state courts for re-sentencing.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit upheld the District Court’s ruling. The Supreme Court granted cert. in March 2019 and heard oral argument on the case in October 2019. The question before the Court is whether the Fourth Circuit erred in granting Malvo re-sentencing without deciding whether his sentence was mandatory or discretionary.

What To Watch For

Malvo argues that Miller, above else, requires courts to consider a juvenile’s youth when sentencing him. Malvo contends that the Supreme Court’s intent on the issue of juvenile sentencing is clear and uncontradicted by the line of cases stretching from Roper to Montgomery: a youth’s still-developing brain diminishes his culpability and his young age heightens his capacity for change and rehabilitation. To make a distinction over the Miller court’s use of the word “mandatory” would be to create an arbitrary exception to the general rule that a juvenile’s youth matters in determining a just and constitutional punishment.

Malvo further contends that even if it were found that he was sentenced under a “discretionary” scheme, the sentencing judge nonetheless failed to take his youth into consideration, which is exactly what Miller requires.

Mathena, conversely, makes a textual argument by pointing to the Court’s use of the word “mandatory” on 48 instances in the Miller opinion. This, Mathena contends, shows the Court’s intention that the ban on life sentences without parole for juveniles applies only in cases where the individual was given a mandatory sentence. Mathena also points out that mandatory, not discretionary, sentences were at the center of the Miller and Montgomery decisions and, therefore, the mandatory-discretionary distinction was not at issue in either case. And because the Court does not unnecessarily decide questions of constitutional importance (a general principle of Supreme Court decision-making), to say now that the Miller and Montgomery decisions actually decided the mandatory-discretionary issue would go against Supreme Court principle.

Each side puts forth compelling arguments that rely on classic methods of judicial interpretation: Malvo emphasizes the underlying intent of the Court’s series of juvenile sentencing cases while Mathena points to the actual text of the Miller decision. If Mathena v. Malvo is to fall in line with the last 15 years of Supreme Court rulings, one would think that the Court will decide in favor of shielding juveniles from death and life without parole sentences, regardless of the scheme under which the sentencing judge determined those sentences. On the other hand, Mathena’s strong textual argument certainly plays well to the Court’s current conservative majority. It will be interesting to see how the Court decides this case, and you can be sure that the criminal defense community, including Bryan Stevenson himself, will be watching closely.