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The Making of a Criminal: Lee Malvo

By Elaine Cassel

On October 24, 2002, a three-week siege of sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., suburbs ended with the capture of 40-year-old John Allen Muhammad and 17-year-old Lee Malvo. Amid cries for the death penalty for both of these individuals, it is worth reflecting on the factors that may have led to their violent rampage. In Part I of this two-part series, we examine the life of Lee Malvo.

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson said that criminals are not born—they are made. He believed that "potentialities for goodness and badness are inborn in all," growing to probability during childhood and achieving certainty by the end of adolescence. But, Erikson believed, a child does not reach his or her criminal potential without the intervention and confirmation of adults.

17-year-old Lee Malvo met up with 40-year-old John Allen Muhammad through Lee’s mother, Una James. Lee was born in Jamaica, but for most of his childhood lived with his cousin after his parents separated while he was a young boy. In Jamaica, he was a bright and industrious student. His teachers remember him as helpful and polite, with nary a hint of violence.

When he was 13 years old, Lee’s mother stowed him and herself away on a ship filled with immigrants headed for Florida. Both entered this country illegally and moved across the country from Florida to Washington State, where his mother found work. In Washington State, Lee’s mother met Muhammad and they began a relationship. In the United States, Lee was a good student, but when he was found to be here illegally, immigration authorities arrested him and his mother and Lee was expelled from school.

Sometime after school expulsion, he ended up living in a homeless shelter in Bellingham, Washington. Though Muhammad and his mother had split up, Muhammad, himself father of several children by two different wives, took to Lee and treated him like a son. (Muhammad did not have custody of any of his children.) People in Bellingham remember the two as being inseparable at homeless shelters where they lived and at the YMCA where they worked out. They noted that Muhammad seemed to dote on Lee, but he appeared authoritarian.

It appears that when Muhammad and Lee ran out of money and odd jobs, they took off on a crime spree, the full extent of which is still unknown. They appear to have killed a woman in Alabama in an armed robbery, and in the course of killing ten people in the Washington, D.C., area by hiding in a car and shooting with an assault weapon, they demanded ten million dollars ransom money.

The U.S. Government’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention conducted research on the risk factors for violence across several domains—community, family, school, peer, and individual risk factors. Among risk factors for violence that Lee was exposed to are availability of firearms, community laws and norms favorable toward firearms, media portrayal of violence, lack of attachment to a community, extreme economic deprivation, and family conflict.

Based on reports we have about Lee’s life so far, there is no record of his having exhibited behavior problems until his involvement in these horrific crimes. No adult who has spoken about him described him as anything but a polite, pleasant boy. He was a success in school, until, sadly, he was expelled for being illegal.

So in a real sense, in spite of exposure to several risk factors for violence, Lee Malvo’s crimes of violence can be traced directly to his involvement with, and recruitment by, the adult John Allen Muhammad, who also experienced many risk factors for violence.

In another time, Lee would not be facing the death penalty. But changes in law in the past ten years that hold even very young juvenile criminals accountable as adults, mean that, assuming he is proven guilty, Lee’s life may be taken from him to pay for the lives he took. Even if his life is spared, he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

For the near term, he will face capital murder trials in at least three states. Sadly, Lee Malvo is a perfect example of how many factors converged to turn Lee from a polite, industrious young boy with promise, to a violent killer who has no future but life in prison or death by lethal injection.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College