Travion Blount case heads to top Virginia court for third time

By Gary A. Harki, The Virginian-Pilot – 7/28/2015

The case of Travion Blount, who was sentenced to multiple life terms for a robbery he committed at age 15 with two older men, will go to the state Supreme Court for a third time.

A federal judge has asked the court to consider whether the commutation of Blount’s sentence by former Gov. Bob McDonnell – as well as commutations granted by governors in other cases for the past 100 years – was allowed under the state’s constitution. The ruling could affect Blount’s case as well as how Virginia governors consider commutations.

Along with two 18-year-old men, Blount robbed a Norfolk house party in 2006. No shots were fired and no one was seriously injured. The two older men pleaded guilty and received 10- and 13-year sentences.

Blount refused to plead guilty, insisting he didn’t commit all of the crimes he was charged with. A jury convicted him at trial of 49 of 51 felonies. Because he was a juvenile, the jury played no part in his sentence. A judge imposed six life terms plus 118 years. It is one of the longest sentences in the country for a juvenile convicted of a crime not involving murder.

In 2010, after Blount was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole for offenses other than homicide is unconstitutional.

That spurred Blount’s lawyer, John Coggeshall, to petition the Norfolk Circuit Court and then the federal court to overturn Blount’s life sentences.

“We would like Mr. Blount to be given a reasonable sentence,” Coggeshall said Monday. “The ringleader of this crime gets out in September.”

As the federal petition worked its way through the justice system, Coggeshall also petitioned McDonnell for a conditional pardon. Unlike commutations, conditional pardons can be rejected if the person whose sentence is under consideration doesn’t like the terms.

In one of his final acts before leaving office in January 2014, McDonnell instead commuted Blount’s sentence to 40 years. The commutation cannot be appealed to Virginia courts.

Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled in Blount’s case and another case filed following the 2010 Supreme Court ruling.

In the case of Dennis LeBlanc of Virginia Beach, who was sentenced to two life terms for a rape and kidnapping he committed in 1999 when he was 16, the court ruled that his sentences were unconstitutional. The federal court ruled that he must be resentenced because of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In Blount’s case, the federal court did not rule on whether his original sentence was unconstitutional under the 2010 ruling. Rather, the federal court questioned whether McDonnell’s commutation was allowed under Virginia’s constitution.

It asked the state Supreme Court to clarify whether Blount had received a commutation or a conditional pardon.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 1872 that governors could commute sentences only for capital offenses, said Steve Emmert, publisher of the website Virginia Appellate News and Analysis. Emmert said the federal court has questioned whether the state constitution allows commutations only for death sentence cases.

But for more than 140 years, governors have been using commutations and conditional pardons nearly interchangeably.

If the state Supreme Court rules that Blount’s commutation is legal, then he likely will have to serve the 40 years McDonnell imposed, Emmert said. If the court rules that his commutation is not allowed under the state’s constitution and it should be considered a conditional pardon, then Blount can reject it.

That would allow Blount and Coggeshall to ask the federal court to decide whether his original sentence is unconstitutional following the 2010 Supreme Court ruling.

“If they rule that it’s the same as a conditional pardon, then we have the option to accept it or reject it,” Coggeshall said. “But they could rule something entirely different.”

More than 100 years of use by governors won’t matter if such commutations are prohibited by the constitution, Emmert said.

“That this has been standard practice for generations won’t count for anything,” he said. “If it’s unconstitutional, it’s unconstitutional.”