By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Thursday said a sniper serving life in prison without parole over deadly shootings that traumatized the Washington, D.C. area in 2002 must be resentenced in Virginia because he was only 17 at the time of his crimes.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied an appeal by prosecutors who said Lee Boyd Malvo need not be resentenced over his role in the D.C. sniper case, which left 10 people dead over three weeks in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
It cited recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional, and that this rule applied retroactively.
"We make this ruling not with any satisfaction, but to sustain the law," Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote for a three-judge panel of the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court. "As for Malvo, who knows but God how he will bear the future."
Malvo, 33, had received four life sentences in Virginia, after being convicted of two murders and later entering a separate guilty plea to avoid the death penalty. He also received life without parole in Maryland.
John Allen Muhammad, Malvo's older accomplice, was also convicted over the shooting spree. He was executed in 2009 at age 48 in a Virginia state prison.
Niemeyer called Malvo's and Muhammad's crimes "the most heinous, random acts of premeditated violence conceivable."
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring had argued that Malvo's sentences in that state were acceptable because the trial judge had discretion to impose lesser punishment.
Charlotte Gomer, a spokeswoman for Herring, said that office may appeal to the entire 4th Circuit or the Supreme Court.
"We are going to review the decision closely and decide how best to proceed in a way that ensures this convicted mass murderer faces justice for his heinous crimes," she said.
Craig Cooley, a lawyer for Malvo, said he was pleased with the decision.
"In Lee's case, the sheer number of convictions means he will still serve at least a very substantial portion of his life in prison," he added.
The appeals court said Malvo could be resentenced to life without parole if his crimes reflected "permanent incorrigibility," or a lesser punishment if his crimes reflected the "transient immaturity" associated with being 17.
Thursday's decision affirmed a May 2017 ruling by U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk, Virginia.
Malvo and Muhammad were arrested after police found them sleeping at a Maryland rest area in a Chevrolet Caprice.
The case is Malvo v Mathena, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 17-6746.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York, editing by G Crosse and David Gregorio)