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Lucy Nicholson / REUTERS
A sentence of life in prison without the possibility parole seems like it would be a punishment reserved only for the most heinous criminals, those deemed unfit for reintroduction into society. That’s not always the case, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union, which advocates for more lenient sentencing.
The cases documented in A Living Death are not necessarily typical, and many are the result of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, not the discretion of a judge or jury. But some of the stories of the 3,278 people the ACLU counts serving life without parole in federal prisons and the nine states that provided them with data are nonetheless shocking.
The number of U.S. prisoners who received life sentences without parole quadrupled between 1992 and 2012.
More than 18 percent of nonviolent offenders serving life without parole in the federal system are in for their first offense.
Lance Saltzman, of Florida, removed a gun from his home that belonged to an abusive stepfather who had used the weapon to threaten his mother repeatedly, he said. He was convicted of armed burglary and, due to a previous burglary conviction when he was 16, sentenced to mandatory life without parole.
Clarence Aaron, a college student with no prior criminal record, was given three life-without-parole sentences for his minor role in two planned large drug deals, one of which never took place. He received longer sentences than his co-conspirators and has spent the past 20 years in prison.
Black prisoners comprise 91.4 percent of the non-violent life-without-parole population in the state of Louisiana.
Vincent Winslow was homeless when he acted as a go-between in the sale of two $10 bags of marijuana to an undercover cop. The seller was not arrested. Based on decade old drug possession conviction and unarmed burglaries committed 14 and 24 years earlier, Winslow was sentenced to life without parole.
The crimes for which people have been sentenced to life without parole (when combined with prior convictions) include stealing: small change from a parked car, a pair of socks, nine children’s videotapes, a pair of work gloves from a department store, a leaf blower, three golf clubs, chocolate chip cookies and a slice of pizza.
Read the full report here.
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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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Detroit— In a week the city elected a new mayor and the state’s governor appeared on national TV news shows touting its revival, residents were dealing with the stark realities of crime in the city — nine dead in seven days.
The incidents began Sunday when a baby girl was delivered after her mother and a companion were killed in the 9200 block of Meyers Road, on the west side near Joy and West Chicago.
On Wednesday, three men were killed and six were wounded in a shootout in a barbershop on Seven Mile near Keystone in northeast Detroit.
Early Friday, three people were found dead on the living room floor of a west side house. Later in the day, at 5:05 p.m., a man’s body was discovered in a garbage can in northwest Detroit. Police said they would await autopsy results from Wayne County Medical Examiner to determine whether it was a homicide.
According to the police, these latest homicides bring the total in Detroit for the year to 292, including the addition of 17 slayings in the past 10 days.
Detroit Police Chief James Craig was unavailable Friday for comment on the spate of killings, but his spokesman, Detroit Police Sgt. Michael Woody, said the department is doing what it can to respond to the violence. But police cannot do it alone, he cautioned.
“The reality of it is we’ve had a violent week of crime,” Woody said. “Everyone in this department is very cognizant of it. But at some point, the public has to take culpability and be a part of the solution. It’s not just a Detroit Police Department problem, it’s a city of Detroit problem, and we all need to stand together.”
Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, said the week’s violence highlights the dire challenges facing the city.
“It underlines to a certain degree what we’re up against in terms of restructuring,” he said. “It emphasizes why public safety and delivery of services need to be the top priority for the city.”
Nowling called the crimes “tragic and senseless,” but noted that most were committed in the presence of other illegal activities. “That’s why it’s important that we’re able to get through this restructuring process so we can make investments in increasing police activity,” he said.
Ron Scott, director of the Coalition Against Police Brutality, said the examples of violence plaguing Detroit are based on myriad issues that include substance abuse, domestic violence and other crimes.
“Every battle or argument is not meant to be a battle that ends a life,” Scott said, whose group also emphasizes conflict resolution in neighborhoods to curtail crime before it happens. “It becomes easy to resolve something and not even know the consequences. We have allowed ourselves to be desensitized to black on black murder. But we can get a grip on it.”
Malik Shabazz, a longtime activist who has been working to empower residents to fight crime, said crime is a “bigger and more pervasive problem than any of us realize.” It will take a massive effort from every resident to cure Detroit’s violent ills, he added.
“The city of Detroit is a microcosm of a macrocosm of our nation. It’s a violent nation that we live in,” Shabazz said. “We as a society, as a nation, as a city, we are failing to create good human beings. Good human beings have to be molded, have to be taught, have to shown.”
Shabazz said his Marcus Garvey Movement, which has been going block to block in an attempt to stop crime before it happens, reports some successes. But “the city can’t be saved by one organization,” he said. “Everybody’s got to get involved. Everybody’s got a role to play in fighting this crime and grime that takes place.”
He made the comments later Friday after reports that police had been called to the 3200 block of West Philadelphia where the bodies of a woman, 22, and two men, 32 and 35, each with gunshot wounds to the head, had been found on the floor in a lower unit of a house.
Only a day earlier, the police chief had described the shootings at the barbershop as an act of “urban terrorism.”
One local minister warned Friday the violent death of an African-American in Detroit “has become normal.”
“The challenge is how to sensitize people to the fact that this is not normal that we live in a war zone,” said the Rev. David Bullock, pastor Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church.
Scott said he believes city residents can start paying attention to stopping crime if they are properly engaged. He cited an incident in which members of his organization interceded last year and helped convince a man who had his bicycle stolen by some youth from getting into an altercation. Scott said that same evening his group was putting on a play about curtailing violence.
“We can’t just react,” Scott said. “We have to focus on the sanctity of life.”
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