Travion Blount gets a chance at freedom after 6 life sentences for Norfolk robbery when he was 15

By Gary A. Harki, The Virginian-Pilot – 5/26/2017

Travion Blount, sentenced to six life terms for a robbery he committed at 15, must be given a new sentence in Norfolk Circuit Court, a federal judge ruled.

Arenda Wright Allen, a Judge in the Eastern District of Virginia, struck down Blount’s original sentence and the partial pardon given to him by then-Gov. Bob. McDonnell.

Friday’s ruling also strikes down a state Supreme Court decision upholding McDonnell’s pardon, which reduced Blount’s sentence to 40 years from six life terms plus 118 years.

“It’s just groundbreaking,” said attorney John Coggeshall, who has worked on Blount’s case for more than a decade. “What stuck out most to me is that the judge ruled that both the six consecutive life terms Blount was sentenced to and the 40-year pardon were cruel and unusual.”

The ruling has implications for more than just Blount’s case, said Steve Emmert, publisher of the website Virginia Appellate News and Analysis.

“It’s the latest shot across the bow in a war of words between the state Supreme Court and federal judges,” he said.

The ruling further clarifies how Virginia and other states can sentence juvenile offenders, he said.

Coggeshall estimates that between 15 and 25 current inmates who were sentenced as juveniles in Virginia could be affected.

Blount robbed a Norfolk house party in 2006 along with two 18-year-olds, who received 10- and 13-year sentences. No shots were fired, and no one was seriously injured. The two older men pleaded guilty, but Blount refused, insisting he didn’t commit all of the crimes he was charged with. A jury convicted him of 49 of 51 felonies and then-Circuit Judge Charles Griffith gave him his original sentence of six life terms plus 118 years.

Blount initially had no chance for parole because Virginia in 1995 eliminated parole for anyone convicted of a felony . That changed with the Graham v. Florida U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010, in which the court found that juveniles convicted of anything less than homicide must have a meaningful chance of release. Subsequent federal rulings have further limited lengthy sentences for juveniles.

Blount appealed his sentence to the state Supreme Court, but it was turned down. The court had already ruled on another case, following Graham v. Florida, that juvenile offenders had a meaningful option to leave prison in the state’s geriatric release program. Long-term inmates are eligible to appeal for release after turning 60.

Coggeshall then determined that Blount could challenge the state Supreme Court’s ruling that having a geriatric release program constituted a meaningful chance of release following Graham v. Florida. He appealed the matter in federal court and petitioned then-Gov. Bob McDonnell for a conditional pardon.

In one of his final acts before leaving office in January 2014, McDonnell commuted Blount’s sentence to 40 years instead of giving him a conditional pardon. A commutation cannot be appealed through Virginia courts, whereas a conditional pardon can be rejected if the person whose sentence is under consideration doesn’t like the terms.

That limited Blount’s ability to appeal in federal court. He could no longer use the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in his argument because he no longer had a life sentence.

A further federal court ruling in Blount’s case questioned whether McDonnell’s commutation was allowed under the state constitution and asked the state Supreme Court to clarify whether he had received a commutation or conditional pardon.

For more than 140 years, governors have been using commutations and conditional pardons nearly interchangeably, Emmert has said.

The state Supreme Court ruled that Blount got neither a conditional pardon nor a commutation. Instead, the majority of the court ruled Blount received a partial pardon.

McDonnell’s badly worded pardon stood – until Friday’s federal court ruling.

“The former Governor’s ‘partial pardon’ does not … cure the constitutional violations that occurred at sentencing and through the state court’s denial of postconviction relief. Accordingly, this Court must grant Mr. Blount’s petition,” Allen wrote in her ruling.

The ruling, Emmert said, means that even by following those mandatory minimum sentences, judges in Virginia could give a juvenile so many years in prison that the sentence is unconstitutional.

“What are we in Virginia going to do – ignore all scientific evidence that juvenile brains are not completely formed and that they can’t be held as adults?” Coggeshall said.

Now Blount’s case goes back to a Norfolk Circuit Court for a new sentencing hearing . Emmert said he could still receive between 20 and 25 years, but that a longer sentence would likely again be ruled unconstitutional because of Graham v. Florida.

His mother Angela Blount said she was overwhelmed by Friday’s news.

“I’ve always prayed for it to happen,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for this day forever, it feels like.”

Gary A. Harki, 757-446-2370,