I Spent Years Getting to Know a Teenage Serial Killer

Lee Malvo was 17 when he helped commit the DC sniper attacks. "I, Sniper" documentary maker Mary-Jane Mitchell describes how she got access to him.

At 3:15AM on the 24th of October, 2002, armed police closed in on a rest stop just off an interstate in Maryland. There, hiding out inside a blue Chevrolet Caprice, were 41-year-old Gulf War veteran John Muhammad, and Lee Malvo, then aged just 17. 

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Together, for the previous 23 days, Muhammad and Malvo had terrified Washington DC with a deadly wave of indiscriminate sniper shootings. Ten people were killed in these attacks in the US capital, with three others critically injured, as the assailants picked off their victims one by one and at random from inside their car’s trunk.

Muhammad and Malvo’s arrests marked the end of a violent crime spree across America, which left 17 dead. Malvo was later sentenced to life in prison without parole; Muhammad received a death sentence and was executed by lethal injection in 2009. 

Over 15 years in the making, a new six-part documentary series – I Sniper: The Washington Killers – tells the story behind this spate of killings which captured the world’s attention. Victims, witnesses, law enforcement, bereaved families are all heard from, but it’s the narration by Malvo himself –recorded from his Supermax cell at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison – which is most striking. For British filmmaker Mary-Jane Mitchell, the series producer, getting to know Mavlo and including his voice was key to understanding how exactly a teenage boy from Jamaica became embroiled in this tragic and violent American crime story. 

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VICE: When did you start following this story?
Mary-Jane Mitchell:
I was working as a news producer in London back in 2002, when this story was breaking, I was in the office late one night when a call came in asking if anyone wanted to head out the US, and I did. When the shooters were identified and arrested, for most journalists the story was over. But to my mind, this was just the start: Who are these people? How did they end up here? I cut together a short news film, but I knew I wanted to make something bigger. So I flew out to Malvo’s first court dates on my own dime, and moved to the US one month later. 

Malvo narrates much of the film. How did go about building a relationship with him?
By 2006, Malvo had been sentenced to life without parole; John Muhamad meanwhile was on death row facing execution. Slowly, I built a relationship with Malvo’s legal team. I began writing to him in 2006, at first everything was through letters. At that stage he was still far too young to be put into a film; not mature enough to have the insights required to hold this project together. But it was the start of a long process – it was only in 2016, ten years later, that we started in earnest to build towards the interviews I ultimately conducted. 

What were the practicalities of interviewing him from a high-security prison?
At the time when we started really making this film, Malvo had been in solitary confinement for 16 years with very limited access to the outside world. It took months to even get on the short list of people he could call. We spoke on the phone over a period of two years, each conversation only lasting up to 15 minutes – that’s the maximum length of a prison phone call. I never knew when my phone would ring or how long he might speak for, or if a call would be his last. I was at his beck and call, travelling everywhere with my recording device and an ever-growing list of questions. Whatever time he rang, whatever I was doing, we dived back in. Over a period of two years, we clocked up 17 hours of conversation. 

It wasn’t until after you finished the interviews that you met in person. Why?
It was deliberate. I didn’t want to see him until after we’d completed our recordings. People tend to give themselves permission to be more open when nobody can see them, when they don’t know the person they’re speaking to. This approach allowed him to talk to me about the worst things he’d done – the darkest moments in his life – without feeling self-conscious. We were both just disembodied voices. It was only when we went to the prison to film external shots of the building that I arranged to meet him in person. He was sitting in a glass cage. We had developed a very easy rapport on the phone; in person, that continued. It felt like the right way to end what had been a hugely emotionally involved project for both of us. 

Why was it important to have his voice in the film?
I don’t think you could make it without him. He offered insights into what was happening in the car, in his mind, in his perceptions of John Muhammad, like nobody else could. Other people can talk about what it was like to deal with the consequences of their actions. And so while Lee narrates his story, he’s only one part of the series: We were certain to make sure you understand who his victims were too. But the only way to grapple with how and why shootings keep happening is to sit down and talk to the assailants to explore their experiences and motivations. I didn’t want to try and exonerate Malvo of his crimes, but I did want to understand his crimes in the context of the life he’d lived, to think about how it could have happened. The unthinkable doesn’t become thinkable overnight.

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Didn’t all that come out at his trial? 
Malvo didn’t even give evidence in his trial. He was a child, barely operating in his own defence. And he was on trial for his life – the jury only had two choices: the death penalty or life without parole. What we found was not a single gotcha moment; what happened to Malvo before these events was a slow-burn horror story of an abused and abandoned child, exploited and also abused by Muhammad. You see all the times when his life could have gone in an alternate direction. If John Muhamad, for instance, who took Malvo under his wing, had happened to be an actual father figure, Malvo may well have ended up graduating from university and becoming a pilot as he’d always dreamed. None of this was known before. I hope this untangles his story, and highlights the number of moments where people and society failed him. 

What’s your main takeaway from this years-long production process?
The making of this film really forced me to live by the ethos that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. Criminal justice films are often far more comfortable looking at the cases of individuals who above reproach, the incarcerated innocent. It’s far more rare to look in depth at those who are accused of – and guilty of – their crimes. To take the time to understand what their life experiences are. I hope the audience sees the complexity and humanity in everyone, even in someone as ostensibly evil as Malvo. By telling his story – alongside the others in the film – you begin to understand the hurt and harm in all corners.  

You’ve spent years getting to know Malvo; how are you left feeling about him and his future behind bars? 
The US is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison. Malvo is serving multiple life without parole sentences, incarcerated since he was 17 years old. I hope at some point in time he will at least have the opportunity to make his case to a parole board. Everyone, certainly children, have the capacity to grow and change. I hope audiences see people don’t do awful things suddenly. They’re on a path. And in Mavlo’s case there were lots of red flags, as there are in so many shooter stories. Points where systems and authorities could have intervened; opportunities where this might have been prevented. If people question how they feel about Lee – how he did what he did and his punishment – then we’ve done our job.

I Sniper: The Washington Killers starts Monday 24 Jan at 10pm on Channel 4.

Tagged:

Documentary, washington dc, true crime, Serial Killers, Lee Malvo, John Muhammad

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