Stare Decisis: A Matter of Life and Death?

By Alanna Ostby.


On October 16, 2019, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Mathena v. Malvo—a case rising out of a string of sniper-style shootings in 2002 that killed twelve individuals and injured six others in the D.C. metropolitan area. One of the culprits, John Allen Muhammed—forty-two years old at the time of the shootings—received the death penalty and was executed in 2009. His seventeen-year-old accomplice, Lee Malvo, received a sentence of life without parole (LWOP) at the discretion of judges in Virginia and Maryland.

But Malvo’s sentence stood on shaky ground when the Supreme Court initiated juvenile sentencing reform in the 2000s. Beginning with Roper v. Simmons in 2005, the Court outlawed the death penalty for juvenile offenders. Then, its 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida prohibited LWOP for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. By 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the Court extended Graham to bar statutorily mandated LWOP for any juvenile offender, noting specific age-related factors that judges ought to consider before imposing a sentence of LWOP. And four years later in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court retroactively invalidated all LWOP sentences issued before 2012 that violated its holding in Miller.

Malvo’s Appeal

Upon this promising shift in precedent for juvenile offenders, Malvo appealed his LWOP sentence, and the Fourth Circuit reversed it. The court reasoned that Miller barred not just statutorily mandated LWOP for juveniles, but every LWOP sentence given to a juvenile offender whose crime reflected only “transient immaturity,” as in Malvo’s case, and not “permanent incorrigibility.” The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the Fourth Circuit’s holding.

In his brief to the Supreme Court, Malvo defended the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning. He claimed that, although Miller happened to reverse a “mandatory” LWOP sentence that was required by statute, the same rationale—specifically the premise that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing”—should invalidate any LWOP sentence imposed without proper consideration of the offender’s age. Malvo specifically noted the sentencing judges’ failure to consider his reduced maturity, vulnerability to outside influences, and undeveloped character at the age of seventeen—factors that both lessened his culpability and increased his potential for reform. He concluded that their insufficiently considered, even if discretionary, sentencings violated his Eighth Amendment rights.

In contrast, the petitioner, Randall Mathena—a prison warden where Malvo currently serves his sentence—critiqued the Fourth Circuit’s judgment as a wrongful extension of Miller. He specifically argued that Miller proscribed only statutorily mandated LWOP for juveniles—not LWOP imposed by judges in their unhampered discretion, even if they did not consider all of the factors that Malvo had hoped they would. Therefore, according to Mathena, the Fourth Circuit erred by reversing Malvo’s sentence in Miller’s name because Miller did not even address discretionary sentences.

Practical Consideration Moving Forward

Most would not contest the Court’s responsibility to stay in line with its own precedent, but, in this case, perhaps applying that precedent is easier said than done. The Court’s decision will probably come down to a question of interpretation: Should it emphasize bright-line rules derived from precedent’s factual outcomes—here, as it relates to particular sentencing labels? Or should the Court apply the rationale behind those outcomes to new factual scenarios, i.e., to overturn even discretionary LWOP sentences given to certain juvenile offenders? On a procedural level, prioritizing the facts of precedent promotes predictability and stability when applying the law in the future—the exact objective of stare decisis. Such a strict approach, however, might lead to substantively unjust outcomes that neglect the actual intent behind precedent. Either way, in just a few short months the Supreme Court will let us know where it stands, and its decision will make the difference between life and death (in prison) for Lee Malvo.