State Supreme Court ruling leaves Travion Blount with few options

By Gary A. Harki, The Virginian-Pilot – 2/16/2016

The state Supreme Court last week ruled that a badly worded governor’s pardon will keep Travion Blount in prison for decades, even if he was a juvenile at the time he committed the crime and no one died.

Blount was originally sentenced to multiple life terms for a robbery he committed at 15 with two older men. Had Gov. Bob McDonnell not later given him a partial pardon, Blount would have had legal avenues to get out of prison much earlier. But the state Supreme Court’s decision handed down Friday cuts off Blount’s most obvious route to getting his sentence reduced to one similar to the 10- and 13-year sentences the two older men received.

It lets stand McDonnell’s reduction of Blount’s sentence to 40 years from six life terms plus 118 years.

“So we have on the front end a 15-year-old kid that is punished for going to trial,” said Rob Poggenklass, a legal fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. “And on the back end, we seem to have courts valuing finality over justice.”

Blount’s lawyer, John Coggeshall, said he plans to petition the state Supreme Court to look at the case again and to request that Gov. Terry McAuliffe further reduce Blount’s sentence.

Brian Coy, communications director for McAuliffe, said Blount’s pardon request will be reviewed as any other if and when the governor’s office receives it.

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.

Blount refused to plead guilty, insisting he didn’t commit all of the crimes he was charged with. A jury convicted him of 49 of 51 felonies.

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.

Coggeshall petitioned the Norfolk Circuit Court, then the federal court, to overturn Blount’s life sentences. He 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.

It was not the outcome Blount and Coggeshall had hoped for because it limited his 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.

In July, a federal court did not rule on whether Blount’s original sentence was unconstitutional under the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Rather, the 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 questioned whether the state constitution allows commutations only for death-sentence cases.

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

“It’s clear the governors and the courts have been very sloppy when they use it,” Emmert said.

The ruling handed down Friday said that Blount got neither a conditional pardon nor a commutation. Instead, the majority of the court ruled Blount received a partial pardon.

“The reasoning is simple: It isn’t a commutation because Blount hadn’t been sentenced to death,” Emmert wrote on his website “It wasn’t a conditional pardon because the governor didn’t attach any conditions to it.”

In addition, Friday’s ruling said a partial pardon could not be rejected by an inmate.

McDonnell’s badly worded pardon stands.

Blount’s case was one of the few times an inmate would want to back a longer sentence, Emmert said Monday. Now that his sentence is less than life without parole, he can no longer appeal using the 2010 Supreme Court decision.

“I think he’s done,” Emmert said. “Because the ticket he could have used to get a new sentence in federal court is that he had a life sentence with no possibility for parole. Now that is gone and replaced with a term of 40 years. No Supreme Court case law, or case law anywhere, says that juveniles can’t be sentenced to 40 years.”

Poggenklass said he believes Blount’s best chance is to get a pardon from McAuliffe that further reduces the sentence.

“Assuming it gets to the governor’s desk, we would urge him to take a look at the sentences of his co-defendants,” he said.

Coggeshall pointed out that the state’s website giving the public and inmates information on pardons does not mention partial pardons.

“I’m not saying the governor can’t do it, but there’s no inmate in the commonwealth that has a clue what to request,” he said.