The Wake County jury tasked with deciding the fate of Travion Devonte Smith spent less than an hour behind closed doors Monday before returning with an answer to a question that has lingered:
As support for the death penalty wanes across the country, would a jury that had quickly found Smith guilty of the first-degree murder of Melissa Huggins-Jones also recommend his execution?
For the sixth time in a row, after Wake County prosecutors asked for the death penalty in a murder case, a jury said no to capital punishment.
The jury of six men and six women found that Smith’s troubled upbringing and his inability to get the mental health care recommended for him in his youth outweighed the robbery that prosecutors described as an aggravating factor warranting the harshest punishment.
The jurors did not remain in the Wake County courthouse afterward to discuss their decision.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said afterward that it had not gone unnoticed by her that the past six capital cases have resulted in recommendations for life in prison without parole.
“This was a case – the brutality of this murder, we felt very strongly the community needed to make a decision in this,” Freeman said.
A Wake jury has not sentenced anyone to death since 2007 and Freeman said it might be time to reconsider the pursuit of capital punishment.
Defense attorney Jonathan Broun agreed.
“This was an incredible tragedy for Ms. Huggins-Jones’ family,” Broun said after the sentencing hearing. “We can punish people harshly and seriously for first-degree murder without using the death penalty.”
Parents address Smith
After the jury left the courtroom and before Smith stood for sentencing by Judge Paul Ridgeway, Huggins-Jones’ parents addressed the man convicted of taking their daughter’s life.
“This has left a hole in our hearts,” Dawn Wallace told Smith.
Wallace told Smith she did not know until the trial that he had a son of his own, a boy who was only several months old when her daughter was killed. Wallace told Smith she hoped his son would never know him and added that she thought he deserved to die the same painful death as her daughter.
“What you really deserve is to suffer and die in the same manner that Melissa did,” Wallace said to Smith. “You need to have your skull crushed, your nose broke and laying on the side of your face, your jaw broken in two places, your teeth knocked out, your carotid artery severed and multiple other wounds such that you suffer and slowly bleed to death.
“That is what you really deserve. But we are satisfied to know that you will never be released back into society ever again and hope that your child will never have to know you as his father. Our prayers are with your child and our grandchildren.”
Smith did not show any emotion as the statements were read.
After he was sentenced, a bailiff walked him out of the courtroom to begin serving his sentence.
The sentence capped an emotional month for the families and friends of Huggins-Jones and Smith.
Broun and his fellow defense attorney Phoebe Dee argued that Smith’s troubled upbringing – the abandonment by his mother and inability to get long-term mental health prescribed warranted mercy and a sentence of life in prison without the possibility for parole.
Wake County assistant district attorneys Melanie Shekita and Jason Waller argued that the violent nature of Huggins-Jones’ murder – with the 12 wounds to the head and neck and six more on her body in May 2013 while her school-aged daughter was asleep in a bedroom down the hall – warranted the harshest sentence available.
“We don’t come in here doing this lightly,” Waller told the jury. “It’s the most solemn thing we could ever ask you to do.”
Prosecutors displayed a photo of Hannah Jones, the daughter of the victim, alone on the beach as they made arguments in the sentencing phase.
Hannah, 11 now, was 8 years old when she found her mother dead in her bedroom and went outside in her pajamas, crying and alone, looking for help.
The jury heard from Hannah last week as she described the void in her life. There would be no more walks with her mother. No wedding plans together, no celebrating the traditional rites of childhood and adult life.
Defense attorneys argued that Smith, too, had a void in his life after being bounced around from home to home in his early childhood. His mother abused alcohol and smoked crack cocaine, family members testified. She left Smith and one of his brothers alone for extended periods often with no food or clean clothes. There were times, according to testimony, that Smith’s mother put beer or alcohol in baby bottles for her boys to get them to go to sleep and out from under her feet.
Smith also had friction with his father. It was weeks before Huggins-Jones was found dead in her North Hills apartment that Smith’s father kicked him out of his house.
“Travion Smith is going to die in prison,” Dee told the jury. “He will never leave prison of his own volition.”
What the jury was being asked to decide, Dee said, was whether he would die a natural death or be executed by the state.
Weighing the arguments
Prosecutors argued that Smith’s case was one in which aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating circumstances.
Smith, who was convicted on Feb. 16 of first-degree murder and felony murder, also was involved in a burglary, prosecutors said.
Ronald Lee Anthony, 25, was also accused of murdering Huggins-Jones, as was Sarah Redden.
Anthony pleaded guilty last fall to first-degree murder and is serving a lifetime sentence with no possibility for parole. Redden has not been tried yet. She testified at Smith’s trial that she had acted as a lookout at the apartment complex where Huggins-Jones was killed as Smith and Anthony broke into cars in the area.
Prosecutors argued that after Smith and Anthony killed Huggins-Jones, they stole her iPhone and went through her purse. The men used a knife and a blunt object, they said.
“She went to bed at night with her daughter down the hall and these guys come in and do this,” Waller argued after mentioning the 18 blows he contends were struck at close range. “Why? So they can go down the street and sell an iPhone. … They leave her there, just left her. Didn’t do a thing for her except go through her stuff. That’s why this case calls for the death penalty. It’s not a normal murder case.”
Broun countered that arguing that Smith was not “the worst of the worst.”
“That’s not Travion,” Broun argued. “Travion’s not even the worst of the worst when it comes to this tragic and heartbreaking crime.”
Throughout the trial, the defense team has pushed more culpability toward Anthony, several years older than Smith. They described Anthony as a charismatic and manipulative leader who preyed on weaknesses such as those that they contend Smith had.
The defense had 38 mitigating circumstances for the jury to consider.
Prosecutors offered two aggravating factors.
“It’s a weighing test, it’s a balancing test,” Waller argued. “You have to use your reason and common sense. At the end of the day, you can find those aggravating circumstances are like two bowling balls to 38 marbles. That’s the weight those aggravating circumstances deserve.”
Defense attorneys argued otherwise.
“In our state and our country,” Broun said, “the death penalty is not appropriate for every case of first-degree murder.”