A knock on the front door changes all that. Morris Downing and David Nichols both 18, and Travion Blount 15, push their way into the house. Downing and Blount pull out guns: Downing heads to the kitchen, Blount to the bedroom where he finds two terrified girls. Blount robs the girls of their purses and belongings at gunpoint and then makes his way to the kitchen. David Nichols, the only one of the intruders not carrying a weapon, tells the girls they can't leave and locks them in the bedroom.
The three intruders then spread out to search for more victims. In an upstairs room Downing finds four teens playing video games. He orders them to stand up and empty their pockets. One of the boys is too slow and fumbles his wallet and Downing pistols whips him, cutting his scalp.
One of the girls who had claimed to be sick and was allowed to go to the bathroom, escapes through a window, runs to a neighbour's house and the police are alerted. The three robbers, realising that one of the victims has escaped, flee the scene before the police arrive. Witnesses later testified that the robbery lasted less than 20 minutes.
Nichols and Downing, both 18-years-old and legally adults, accept the plea bargain and plead guilty to fewer charges. Nichols receives a sentence of 10 years, Downing 13 years. "It's dumb to fight something you can't win," Downing later says, "We were plainly guilty."
Travion Blount disagrees with his co-defendants. He thinks 18 years is too much. "I was only 17 and 18 years in prison seemed like a lifetime."
Ignoring advice from his attorney, his mother and even his co-defendant, Morris Downing, Blount decides to go to trial and pleads not guilty. He thinks he is innocent of some charges and is willing to fight. His defence attorney, John Coggeshall says, "I had more heart to heart talks with Travion than any other client. Everybody could see the train coming. Everybody. Except him."
|Travion Blount refuses Plea Bargain|
"He is 17," answers the defence attorney.
Fifty-three felony charges are read out, the most serious being illegal use of a firearm, armed robbery and abduction. Blount murmurs the words 'not guilty' to each charge. He says little else during the rest of the three day trial. More than a dozen witnesses, including several of the victims, a detective and Blount's two co-defendants, testify against him. The jury hears about the armed robbery at the house party. They hear how the three defendants collected cash, personal belongings and drugs from the victims at gunpoint. No shots are fired, but one person was struck on the head by one of Blount's co-defendants. The jury return after a couple of hours deliberation. They present a stack of forms to the judge. Travion Blount is found guilty on 49 of the 53 charges.
The judge tells Blount to return to courtroom 7 for sentencing in four months.
He steps through the weapons charges, one by one. The count adds up to 118 years.
The judge then addresses the remaining 25 felony convictions. For the crimes against the victims, all juveniles, Blount receives six life sentences. He will die in prison.
Travion Blount received the harshest punishment delivered to any American teenager for a crime not involving murder. And it's at this point that the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice fumbled the ball. Six life sentences and 118 years for robbery, no matter how they try to spin it, is plainly ludicrous and without doubt, an injustice.
Had the sentence been 25 years without parole, still harsh, but sending out a clear message to any would-be gang bangers, Blount would have disappeared into the prison system and would not have been eligible for release until he was 42. His gang banging days would have been over.
It would appear that the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice dished out six life sentences and 118 years not just for the actual crimes committed by Travion Blount, but for crimes they thought he might commit at some time in the future. (See the film Minority Report.) Was this flawed thinking or did they have a point? Just what crimes was Travion Blount capable of committing?
He joined a gang when he was 11 years old and began to acquire a lengthy criminal record, which included convictions for unauthorised use of a vehicle, robbery, attempted robbery and malicious wounding on four separate occasions.
If Blount was convicted of malicious wounding and was involved in armed robbery aged just 15, it is reasonable to suggest that he would have probably gone on to attempt ever more violent crimes, including murder. Point guns at enough people and eventually you'll hit the target. It's just a question of how many.
But redemption is available to everybody, even in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
According to his mother, Angela, her son has changed. He has accepted responsibility for his role in the robbery and is no longer interested in gang culture. He regrets his decision to go to trial and says, "Who would have thought I would get six life sentences?"
Coggeshall is still acting for Blount and spoke to him in June 2013. He says it was the deepest conversation he'd had with his client for several years. "He was a little boy who wouldn't listen to anybody back then. Now he wants access to prison education programs. He wants to learn and grow. Now 23 years of age, he's more astute, worldly and perceptive."
Of course, it is to be expected that his family and attorney would be supportive. But is Travion Blount as remorseful, astute and perceptive as his family and attorney would have you believe?
|Click to read full size|
So he is not, apparently, astute enough to avoid doing time in solitary confinement for carrying a weapon. And how likely is it that he would have used that weapon on a fellow inmate or even a prison officer? Everybody deserves a second chance; some people just seem incapable of accepting it.
The ludicrous 118 year, six life sentences, given to Travion Blount turned a potentially violent criminal into a victim. And surely that's not what the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice intended.
Update: January 20, 2014
Before leaving office last week, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell commuted Travion Blount's sentence of six life terms plus 118 years, to 40 years. The original sentence survived two appeals: first in Virginia's Court of Appeals, and then in the Virginia Supreme Court. According to a statement by his secretary to the Virginian Pilot, Bob McDonnell considered the 40-year sentence a "just punishment."
But for Blount, his family, and his lawyer, John Coggeshall, the commutation that was announced is not a victory for justice. Coggeshall says, “On any measure, it's a positive step. But that's all it is, a first step,” The lawyer described how according to McDonnell's “conditional pardon,” Blount will live the next four decades in a maximum-security prison, nearly 10 hours away from his family. But Coggeshall says his fight for a fairer sentence for his client is not over.
Information and Pictures courtesy:
The Virginian Pilot
The Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Criminal Justice
The Daily Mail