A federal judge tossed out two life sentences for one of Virginia's most notorious criminals, sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, and ordered Virginia courts to hold new sentencing hearings.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk said Malvo is entitled to new sentencing hearings after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.
Malvo was 17 when he was arrested in 2002 for a series of shootings that killed 10 people and wounded three over a three-week span in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, causing widespread fear throughout the region.
His accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, was executed in 2009.
Malvo also was sentenced to life in prison in Maryland for the murders that occurred there. But his lawyers have made an appeal on similar grounds in that state. A hearing is scheduled in June.
Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Morrogh, who helped prosecute Malvo in 2003, said the Virginia attorney general can appeal Jackson's ruling. If not, Morrogh said he would pursue another life sentence, saying he believes Malvo meets the criteria for a harsh sentence.
Michael Kelly, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, said evening that the office is "reviewing the decision and will do everything possible, including a possible appeal, to make sure this convicted mass murderer serves the life sentences that were originally imposed."
He also noted that the convictions themselves stand and emphasized that, even if Malvo gets a new sentencing hearing, he could still be resentenced to a life term.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. Then, last year, the Supreme Court applied that case retroactively to sentences issued before 2012.
Malvo's first trial took place in Chesapeake after a judge agreed to move it from Fairfax because of pretrial publicity. A jury convicted Malvo of capital murder for the slaying of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, who was shot in the head outside a Home Depot store. Under Virginia law, a capital murder conviction requires either a death sentence or life without parole. Prosecutors sought a death sentence, but a jury opted for life in prison.
Malvo then negotiated a plea bargain in Spotsylvania County and agreed to a life sentence and waived his appeal rights.
The attorney general's office argued unsuccessfully that the Supreme Court rulings should not apply to Malvo. To begin with, while the jury in Chesapeake had only the option of a death penalty or life without parole, the capital murder statute required them to make specific findings about Malvo, including a conclusion that he poses a future danger. The state argued that the jury's findings provide the kind of individualized assessment that the Supreme Court requires to sentence a juvenile to life in prison.
The state also argued that Malvo knowingly waived his appeal rights when he struck the plea bargain in Spotsylvania County.
Jackson, in his ruling, wrote that Malvo was entitled to a new sentencing hearing because the Supreme Court's ruling grants new rights to juveniles that Malvo didn't know he had when he agreed to the plea bargain.
Cheryll Shaw, whose father, Jerry Taylor, was shot and killed by Muhammad and Malvo in March 2002 in Tucson, Arizona, in one of several killings that preceded the sniper shootings in the D.C. region, said the news that Malvo could potentially be released at a future date was an unpleasant shock.
"I was at peace knowing Muhammad was executed and Malvo was serving life without parole. ... I was able to move on with my life," she said. "But if he's going to be let out in my lifetime, I'm not comfortable with that."
She said she has forgiven Malvo and knows that he was brainwashed by the older, imposing Muhammad. "But he knew the difference between right and wrong."
Malvo has been serving his sentence at Red Onion state prison in southwest Virginia.