At the opening of the trial, a Norfolk circuit judge glanced down at Travion Blount.
“He looks young,” the judge said.
“He’s 17,” his defense attorney answered.
A clerk stood and read 51 felony charges against Blount: among them, illegal use of a firearm, robbery, abduction.
Blount said two words to each: “Not guilty.” He said little more during his three-day trial.
A dozen victims, a detective and two teens he once called friends testified against him. Witnesses described an armed robbery committed by two older teenagers and Blount, then 15, at a house party near Norfolk Naval Station in September 2006. The three collected cash and marijuana. No shots were fired, but one person was struck by a co-defendant.
After a few hours of deliberation, a jury foreman submitted a stack of forms to the judge. Blount was guilty on 49 counts.
In Virginia, juries play no role in juvenile punishment. Blount was ordered to return to Courtroom 7 for sentencing in four months.
Defense attorneys tried to avoid the law-and-order judges assigned to courtrooms 3, 5 and 7. They joked about “357 justice” – like a .357 Magnum pointed at their clients.
On March 12, 2008, at Blount’s sentencing, the judge told everyone that gun convictions came with set punishments under Virginia law.
He stepped through the weapons charges, one by one. The count added up to 118 years.
Next, the judge addressed the remaining 25 felony convictions. He suspended several sentences. But for the crimes against three victims – all juveniles, robbed at gunpoint of purses, cellphones and wallets – he did not. The rulings: life, life, life, life, life and life.
Blount knew he would spend years in prison. He didn’t expect to die there.
Angela Blount watched her son turn and ask, “What happened, Mom?”
Travion Blount might be serving the harshest punishment delivered to any American teenager for a crime not involving murder, experts say. His case, and others like it, are forcing judges and lawmakers to ask: Can a young criminal life be redeemed?
Blount’s advocates argue his six life sentences for an armed robbery violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment.
“Nobody’s asking to let him out tomorrow,” said his attorney, John Coggeshall. He wants a new sentence for his client, comparable to the codefendants’. The older defendants – who, according to testimony, led the robbery – pleaded guilty and received just 13 and 10 years in prison.
The Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based appeals firm, represented Blount in Virginia last year. Lawyers for the nonprofit have successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of juvenile offenders.
But the Virginia Supreme Court last year turned down Blount’s appeal. The court ruled in an earlier case that teen offenders with life terms have a meaningful option to leave prison: geriatric release. Long-term inmates are eligible to appeal after they turn 60 in Virginia. But less than 1 percent of eligible prisoners, or five of about 800, were granted geriatric release last year, according to the state.
Blount and at least one other Hampton Roads inmate, a Virginia Beach teen convicted of rape, have appealed for new sentences in U.S. District Court in Norfolk. The state Attorney General’s Office is opposing the requests.
Blount’s crime was not particularly noteworthy. No shots were fired, and he didn’t hit any victims. It did not merit a mention in the morning newspaper.
By comparison, Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad killed three people in Virginia and terrified millions in October 2002.
Malvo, a juvenile at the time of the sniper slayings, was convicted in a Chesapeake courtroom of capital murder and acts of terrorism in Virginia. He received two life terms for those crimes.
Travion Blount got a longer sentence. As it stands, both will die in prison.
Angela Blount holds back tears as she talks about her son’s childhood and how quiet he was. Blount has visited her son once at Wallens Ridge State Prison, a day’s drive away. (Thé N. Pham | The Virginian-Pilot)
Angela Blount and Patrick Mills met at Virginia Beach traffic court. Blount, a hotel housekeeper, and Mills, a grocery stock clerk and competitive weightlifter, dated briefly. After the relationship ended, their son, Travion, was born in Norfolk on Oct. 9, 1990.
Blount said her son was a happy but shy child. She and her children settled into a townhouse on Balview Avenue in Ocean View, and Travion attended Oceanair Elementary School. He played football and basketball in the neighborhood.
As a boy, Travion Blount spent weekends with his father, Patrick Mills, going out for breakfast, fishing and playing. Blount’s father and mother dated briefly but never married. (Courtesy of the Blount family)
Travion spent weekends with his father, getting breakfast at Mick’s Pancake House, fishing or watching movies.
Family photo albums capture Travion in quiet moments – posing with his sisters, cousins, mother and father. At family gatherings, he avoided talking to adults.
He loved his long hair. He sat hours while his older sister braided it down his back.
He hated school. One year, his class was assigned to speak on current events every Friday. Travion hid in the bathroom or told the teacher he wasn’t ready so he wouldn’t have to talk in front of his classmates.
Around the time he was 9, he skipped school and began to get into trouble, his family said. He met Morris “Mo” Downing in middle school, and it was Mo, a few years older and streetwise, who brought Travion into the gang life. They were like brothers.
Travion joined the Crips when he was 11. He hung out on street corners in Park Place, typically wearing a white T-shirt, white Rocawear shorts and Air Jordans. He wore his hair long, usually in braids. He topped it off with a Yankees cap.
His mother says he idolized Downing. She never met him, though. In fact, she struggled to find her son.
In 2006, 15-year-old Travion had more than 20 unexcused absences at Norview Middle School, repeating sixth grade for the fourth time. In an August 2006 interview about teen truancy, Angela Blount told The Pilot that she reached out to several agencies, including truancy court, to get her son in an appropriate program.
“I hope he can get the things that he needs,” Blount said at the time. “I don’t want him just to give up.”
The following month, Travion rode around Norfolk with Mo and David Nichols, another teen, and hatched a plan to rob a drug dealer.
(Interactive produced by C.K. Hickey; illustrations by Sam Hundley | The Virginian-Pilot)
On Sept. 23, 2006, Blount, Downing and Nichols drove to a house in the Glenwood Park neighborhood, where they believed a dealer lived with a few roommates. They found a party and about a dozen teens and 20-somethings.
They pulled guns and stole money, pot and cellphones. Witnesses recognized Nichols and Blount. Police caught all three within a week.
The defendants faced similar charges for the armed robbery. Nichols and Downing, both 18 and legally adults, pleaded guilty to fewer charges and accepted punishment, court records show. They were required to testify about their roles in the crime.
Prosecutors presented Blount a similar deal: plead guilty to fewer charges and accept at least an 18-year prison term. If Blount did not cooperate, they planned to bring additional charges against him for other armed robberies, records show. Several agreements were offered.
Coggeshall advised Blount repeatedly to take a deal. His client listened politely and said little. At one hearing, Coggeshall persuaded a judge to allow Blount’s parents to speak with him in lockup, hoping they could convince him.
“I had more heart-to-heart talks with that client than any other client,” Coggeshall said. “Everybody could see the train coming. Everybody. Except him.”
Angela Blount thought Travion should accept the prosecutor’s offer, but she didn’t push hard. “I can’t make the decision for you,” she told her son.
Downing, in a telephone interview from prison, said he also tried to persuade Blount during a conversation in the Norfolk City Jail. “We can’t win,” he told his friend.
“It’s dumb to fight something you can’t win,” Downing said. “We were plainly guilty.”
But Blount was stubborn. He thought he was innocent of some charges. He was willing to fight.
In November 2007, Judge Charles Griffith accepted Blount’s pleas of not guilty, but he questioned whether the defendant knew the risks. In a sidebar at the bench, away from the jury and Blount, Griffith raised the issue to lawyers. “This is an incredible gamble, this trial is,” Griffith told Coggeshall and prosecutor Amy Cross.
“I think everyone understands that, your honor, in no uncertain terms,” Coggeshall said.
Moments before the trial’s opening statements, Coggeshall and Angela Blount again tried to persuade Travion to plead guilty. He refused.
At points during the trial, with the jurors out of the courtroom, Griffith repeated the risk of a long punishment to Blount.
Full details of the crime emerged during testimony in the three-day trial:
Downing told Nichols and Blount in the car he wanted to rob a marijuana dealer, somebody with money and weed. Nichols scrolled through his phone and found a target. He thought it was a bad idea, but went along.
The three drove to the house and eventually went inside. They waited in the living room. Downing turned and said, “What’s up?” Nichols shrugged.
Downing pulled his gun and went into the kitchen. Blount tried to give his pistol to Nichols. Nichols pushed it back.
While Downing flashed his gun to a group in the kitchen, Blount and Nichols went into the downstairs bedroom. He held a gun on two girls and took their purses. Nichols told them to stay in the room and closed the door.
Downing had rounded up four young men at gunpoint in the kitchen. Blount and Nichols joined him as he ordered the victims to empty their pockets. Blount pointed his gun at a 17-year-old and demanded money. The boy gave Blount $60 and his keys.
Nichols was nervous. There were so many people in the house and just three of them. They locked the young men in the laundry room.
Downing heard the alleged drug dealer coming down the stairs. He pointed his gun at him and ran through the young man’s pockets. Downing went upstairs and searched for more people while Blount took the dealer and a 15-year-old girl downstairs at gunpoint.
The girl told Blount she was sick, so he let her go to the bathroom. She escaped through a window and ran to a neighbor’s house.
Upstairs, Downing found four young men in a bedroom, smoking weed and playing video games. He was shocked by the number of people in the house, but it was too late to turn back.
Downing kept cool. He pretended he was in a movie. He leveled the gun at the group, dropped his voice and said, “Don’t move.” He grabbed a joint from one boy’s mouth and smoked it. He searched their pockets. One fumbled with his wallet, and Downing pistol-whipped him, cutting his scalp.
Downing directed the other victims downstairs. He saw Nichols and grabbed Blount. “Come on, let’s go!”
The three took off.
Witnesses said the robbery lasted less than 20 minutes.
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