Travion Blount’s punishment may be the harshest in America for a teen who didn’t commit murder. The 15-year-old robbed a Norfolk party with two older gang members. He hurt no one. His friends got 10 and 13 years. But as it stands, Blount will die in prison.
Part 1 below | Cruel and unusual?
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.