Prosecutors and defense attorneys began the questioning of potential jurors this week for a death-penalty trial that’s scheduled to begin Feb. 1 in Wake County Superior Court.
Travion Devonte Smith, 23, will be tried on charges that he murdered Melissa Huggins-Jones, a mother and new arrival to Wake County who was found bludgeoned to death in May 2013 in her apartment near North Hills.
Smith is one of three people charged in the homicide.
In November, Smith’s defense attorneys asked Judge Paul Ridgeway take the death penalty off the table as a possible punishment.
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During a hearing that stretched over a couple of days, Jonathan Broun, one of Smith’s attorneys, contended that prosecutors had withheld crucial information that raised questions about the accusations against Smith and one of the key witnesses in the case.
Huggins-Jones had moved to Raleigh from Tennessee and had just started a new job shortly before the attack inside her home. Newly divorced, she set up her apartment with her daughter, who was 8 at the time, and expected her son to join them after the school year.
On May 14, 2013, the girl left the apartment and sought help from a construction worker, who followed the child to the apartment and discovered the crime scene.
Investigators did not immediately have suspects in the case. But a laptop stolen from the apartment that turned up in Wake Forest with telling DNA evidence led investigators to Smith and two co-defendants. Also charged with murder in the case was Ronald Lee Anthony, a 25-year-old who has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and accepted a sentence of life in prison without parole in exchange for prosecutors’ dropping their pursuit of capital punishment.
Sarah Rene Redden, a 21-year-old Wake Forest resident who has been described as the getaway driver, also faces charges related to the case.
At the November hearing, Broun noted that Redden had changed her account of the night from her early reports to police. She initially said Anthony and Smith killed Huggins-Jones, but since then has recanted and shifted the primary responsibility to Anthony.
“She is now saying that it was Ronald Anthony and Ronald Anthony alone who killed Melissa Huggins-Jones,” Broun told Ridgeway at the time. “Ronald told her that he stabbed her to death. Travion didn’t personally hit, stab or hurt Miss Huggins-Jones, according to this statement. She also said she had no indication that Travion ever went into Ms. Huggins-Jones’ bedroom or was present in the room when Ronald Anthony killed her.”
Broun contended that Redden’s initial account of the night – that both men took turns bludgeoning Huggins-Jones – was offered because she did not want Anthony, her boyfriend at the time, to take full blame.
Because Redden had changed her account to make Smith less culpable, Broun argued, Smith no longer should be eligible for the death penalty if convicted. Ridgeway told the attorneys that at that point in the proceedings the death penalty would remain an option, but that would not keep him from reconsidering a request later in the legal process to take capital punishment off the table.
It is expected to take several weeks to find 12 jurors and several alternates for the trial. Opening statements are scheduled for Feb. 1.
The capital trial comes at a time when fewer are occurring in the state.
Though a poll conducted in late September by the Greensboro News & Record and High Point University found that almost three out of four North Carolinians support the death penalty for certain crimes, there has been a decline in support in the courts. A Wake County jury has not sent anyone to death row since 2007.
Armond Devega, 34, was the last in Wake County Superior Court to face the possibility of the death penalty. In 2014, he was convicted of murdering a convenience store manager, as well as a string of robberies that occurred over an 8-month period. The jury, though, did not opt for death. Instead he received a sentence of life without parole, a decision that has become more common when juries are asked to consider capital punishment.
Last year in North Carolina, juries did not send anyone to death row. In all 100 counties in 2015, prosecutors brought only four capital cases to trial. By contrast, there were 57 death penalty trials in 2000 and 18 death sentences across the state.
There have not been any executions in North Carolina since August 2006, because several lawsuits brought by inmates and death penalty critics have created a de facto moratorium.