Why American Courtrooms Are Dangerous Places for Young Blacks
Going to trial can be a dangerous gamble, as the harrowing tale of Travion Blount shows
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. Blount had been convicted of taking part in an armed robbery that resulted in no serious injuries and netted him $60 and a few joints.
Blount was 15 years old when the original sentence was handed down to him after a two-day trial in 2007. The 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, 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.
“On any measure, it’s a positive step. But that’s all it is, a first step,” Coggeshall told AlterNet. According to McDonnell’s “conditional pardon,” Blount will live the next four decades in a maximum-security prison, nearly ten hours away from his family. But Coggeshall says his fight for a fairer sentence for his client is not over.
How did a Virginia courtroom place a young teenager in a maximum-security prison with no chance of making it out alive? Like most other states in the 1990s, Virginia made it much easier to try a juvenile as an adult. Furthermore, the harsh sentence reflects mandatory sentencing laws that helped bloat Virginia’s—and the nation’s—prison population over the last 30 years, as well as the pernicious degradation of the right to trial throughout the country.
Virginia’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in the country. Mirroring the rest of the country, those behind bars are disproportionately Black: Virginia’s African-American population is just 20 percent of the state’s total, but they represent around 60 percent of state prison inmates and 47 percent of all arrests, according to the Justice Policy Institute. Similar over-representation of African Americans occurs among youth arrests and incarceration rates.
In 2006, 15-year-old Travion Blount decided to join two 18-year-old friends who were planning to rob a local drug dealer’s home in Norfolk, Virginia. A few days later, all three youths were apprehended. Blount was eventually convicted of 49 criminal offenses, sufficient to lock him up for the rest of his life.
An interactive breakdown of the 20-minute robbery demonstrates how each of Blount’s movements—as recounted by the victims—translates to distinct crimes, each contributing to his outsized sentence. As he moved through rooms in the house, waving his alleged gun at 12 individuals at the party, the count-ticker was running: for each person, he got one count for abduction, one for attempted robbery, one for use of firearm, and so on. Of note, according to Coggeshall, the guns alleged to have been at the crime have yet to be recovered, and in any case were likely to have been fake.
The interactive map does not, however, show the fatal mistake Blount made eight years ago: he did not accept the plea bargain offered to him.
Coggeshall says Blount believed that because he was a juvenile, he could not be locked away past the age of 21. This belief was wholly based on a fiction called “juvenile life,” that is commonly bandied about among detainees and others in juvenile facilities.
Prosecutors placed a “bargain” on the table of 18 years, but “I’m sure I could have negotiated it down, if I’d been given the chance,” Coggeshall told AlterNet.
The two other teens who planned the robbery, who were older than Blount by three years, escaped the hammer of Virginia’s judicial system by dutifully accepting the plea bargain offered to them; both will be released from their prison terms within the next five years.
At the time Coggeshall pleaded with Blount to accept the deal, and according to reports, so did the judge: “This is an incredible gamble, this trial is,” Judge Charles Griffith told Coggeshall and prosecutor Amy Cross before the trial began 2007.
Approximately 95 percent of cases in the United States are resolved with plea bargains. “Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion of Lafler v. Cooper in 2012. The ubiquity of plea bargains has effectively done away with our entitlement to the Sixth Amendment by penalizing those individuals who go to trial: even the judge knew that a plea bargain would be the only means of delivering anything resembling a fair sentence.
John Coggeshall knew a trial would result in calamity for Blount—a poor black youth affiliated with a violent gang, with 12 witnesses ready to testify against him. “He was just a kid.”
Coggeshall first met Blount at Virginia’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. “It was my duty day. I was appointed his attorney. That’s where the case started.”
But the case was quickly transferred to criminal court, where all juveniles accused of anything “heavy duty,” Coggeshall explains, “including robbery, murder, malicious woundings, get sent.”
“Years ago you could appeal to a judge to convince him to keep a case in the juvenile jurisdiction, but the ways the laws are written now, it’s out of the judge’s hands.”
According to a report commissioned by the Department of Justice in 1997, between 1992 and 2000, 45 states passed or amended legislation to make it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults. Today, 2,500 to 3000 juveniles in America have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. A large portion of these sentences occurred between 1993 and 1998, when juvenile transfers to adult courts surged.
According to the Sentencing Project, prosecutors’ aggressive trying of juveniles as adults has waned since 2000. But there is still a long way to go, as the case of Blount demonstrates. While the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida in 2010 that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole in non-homicidal cases, some states, like Virginia, have found a way around implementing the ruling.
“Virginia has refused to recognize that they have life without parole sentences,” Steven Chu, a lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative, told AlterNet.
“They rely on their geriatric release provision, which was passed around the same time as their ‘truth in sentencing’ laws. In theory, a juvenile sentenced to life has the possibility of being released on geriatric parole when he turns 60. This provision allows the state to say they are in compliance with the Graham decision while still sentencing children with life sentences.”
Travion Blount is one of at least 22 people in Virginia serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles that did not involve homicide. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, children as young as seven can be tried in adult court in 23 states, making them subject to harsh adult sanctions.
During the mitigation phase of Blount’s sentencing, Coggeshall says he provided copious amounts of evidence that should have led the judge to lessen the sentence, including evidence indicating Blount was merely following the orders of his older, influential friends, and psychologists’ opinions that 15- and 18-year-olds have a significant neurological difference in maturity and rationality.
“Because there’s no legislation that says juveniles sentenced to lengthy sentences should get a review,” Coggeshall said, “there’s nothing in the Commonwealth of Virginia preventing this from happening again.”
Senator Dave Marsden has introduced legislation that would give individuals who were sentenced to life sentences when they were under 18 a chance to stand before a panel of four, after serving at least 20 years of their life sentence.
“This panel would have the authority to reduce the sentence. A law like this could prevent instances like Travion’s from happening again,” Coggeshall said.
Coggeshall told AlterNet he hopes to further reduce the time Blount spends in prison, but the first order of business is to get him transferred out of Wallens Ridge, the maximum-security facility he’s been held in for the last five years, which is a prohibitively long distance away from his family and his lawyers.
Earlier this year, after Coggeshall and Norfolk NAACP petitioned the departing governor of Virginia for a conditional pardon, Blount expressed his remorse. In an interview with a local TV station, Blount said in a prison interview, “It feels bad. Not because I got all this time, but now I know it’s not right.”
If the salient facts of this case teach us anything, it’s that a courtroom might be the most dangerous place in the U.S. for a young Black male.
Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist based in San Francisco. She writes for Al Jazeera English, Inter Press Service, Truthout, the Electronic Intifada and other publications.
—AlterNet, January 20, 2014