Wake County Assistant District Attorney Jason Waller pounded his fist on a courtroom table 18 times during his closing arguments in the Travion Smith trial on Tuesday.
Each loud thud against the wood represented the number of blows that Melissa Huggins-Jones, the mother of two, suffered on May 13, 2013, when she was bludgeoned to death inside her North Hills apartment.
“Eighteen times, that knife or that fist went to her head, neck or torso,” Waller said.
Then the prosecutor went silent for one minute in front of the six men and six women tasked with deciding the fate of Smith, the 23-year-old man on trial for first-degree murder.
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Waller stood quietly, leaving a sense of unease and anticipation in the pin-drop silence. “That was one minute,” Waller said.
Dr. Lauren Scott, the medical examiner who testified last week in the capital murder trial, said Huggins-Jones died from a combination of wounds, that it could have taken from several minutes to several hours for her to die from blood loss.
Following closing arguments, the jury deliberated for just over an hour before finding Smith guilty of first-degree and felony murder.
Smith, who was forced out of his home when he was 15 years old, faces a possible death sentence. The jury of 11 whites and one Asian will return Wednesday morning to hear witnesses talk about any aggravating or mitigating factors the jury should consider in the punishment phase. A Wake jury has not sentenced anyone to death since 2007.
Since the trial started on Feb. 2, the family of Huggins-Jones has watched the proceedings from the front rows of the courtroom gallery. They became emotional during some of the testimony and released audible sighs and quietly hugged each other when the verdict was announced. The verdict meant that Smith not only acted with premeditation or malice, but also took part in the crime while committing a burglary.
Ronald Lee Anthony, who also was arrested in the case, pleaded guilty last fall to first-degree murder. In exchange, prosecutors dropped their pursuit of capital punishment against him and agreed to a lifetime prison sentence with no possibility for parole.
“You can decide this case on acting in concert even if you believe the defendant never touched her,” Waller told the jury in his closing arguments in the Smith trial. “You’ve got to decide if there was a burglary … all he has to do is step into the apartment.”
The defense argued that the witness for the prosecution who put Smith inside the apartment – a jailhouse informant who shared a cell with Smith – suffered from a psychotic disorder that affected his credibility.
“The question is ‘Can you trust what he said?’” defense attorney Jonathan Broun asked in his closing arguments.
Mother’s Day visit
Melissa Huggins-Jones had been with her parents shortly before her death. They had been together for a post-Mother’s Day meal in Raleigh and parted ways with Huggins-Jones telling them that she planned to take a walk in the neighborhood.
When Huggins-Jones moved to Raleigh in 2013, she had left Tennessee to start anew after the breakup of her marriage. Her daughter, Hannah, just 8 at the time, was with her. Her son planned to join them after finishing the school year in Tennessee.
“Peaceful setting, urban location,” Waller said. “When Melissa Huggins-Jones decided to move here back in 2013, that’s what she was looking for – a peaceful setting, an urban location.”
About the same time Huggins-Jones was setting up a new home in Raleigh, Waller pointed out, Smith and Anthony were moving in together in Oxford.
Prosecutors contend that Smith and Anthony were like brothers; they did everything together.
The defense team countered that Anthony, who was older than Smith, had charisma that pulled people toward him. Defense attorneys described Anthony as a master manipulator who preyed upon a vulnerability they say Smith had.
Anthony, Smith and Sarah Redden, who also is accused of murder in the case, were together on May 13 for much of the day. The three were at North Hills, where they went to an ice cream store and had a kerfuffle about whether they needed to list criminal histories on a job application. That visit led to an encounter at a Starbucks, where the ice cream store manager was confronted by Anthony, according to trial testimony.
The trio continued their time together, breaking into cars in the shopping center parking lot and taking electronics and GPS equipment. They then went to a Bonefish Grill restaurant, where the waitress remembered them because of the odd assortment of pins, golf tees and other small items left behind on their table.
Waller described the items as things they picked up in the car break-ins.
After leaving the restaurant that night, Anthony bought gloves, according to testimony, and the trio set out for the North Hills apartment complex to break into more cars.
Redden, who testified for prosecutors, said she acted as a lookout that night. The men had split away from her, telling her to remain in a breezeway.
That’s when prosecutors contend that Smith and Anthony scaled the wall of the apartment building where Huggins-Jones lived with her daughter and crawled onto the balcony, where an unlocked door awaited them.
Prosecutors argued that Smith and Anthony left behind footprints and fabric prints on opposite ends of the balcony where their gloves left impressions on the railing.
Redden testified that she saw Smith on the balcony at one point during the night and asked where Anthony was. Smith, she testified, pointed to the inside of the apartment.
One shoe print on an outside air-conditioning unit, prosecutors argued, matched shoes that Smith had. A shoe print found inside the home on the new carpet matched shoes that Anthony had.
Prosecutors argued that crime scene investigators did not find DNA evidence at the crime scene to implicate Smith or Anthony because they wore gloves.
They argued that Smith struck at least one of the 18 blows that Huggins-Jones suffered, and reminded jurors that Smith, on the day of his arrest, told an investigator he had heard a “horrifying scream” that reminded him of a horror movie.
Redden alerted Smith when he was on the balcony that Raleigh police were in the area. They were cruising around after reports of break-ins.
Once she caught up with Anthony and Smith on the ground level, Waller said, their gloves were gone, and they had water bottles they had not had before. Waller contends they used the water bottles to wash blood off their hands.
Broun argued that if Smith had been in the apartment where so much blood was shed, he would have been covered with blood, and he was not. Redden reported seeing blood splatters on the bottom of his shirt and seeing Anthony remove his shirt and put on a different one.
The trio eventually got a ride from a friend of Anthony’s who drove them to a strip club to the north, where they were to return the car to their driver’s girlfriend.
They all went to a Motel 6 afterward. Redden said Smith was quiet that night, not his typical goofy self. He was worried about his child, Redden said, and turned to Anthony inside the motel room and asked: “What the hell just happened?”
Prosecutors and the defense team put different spins on the meaning of that question.
Defense attorney Phoebe Dee told the jury in closing arguments that everybody was in that room because of Anthony’s ability to make people do what he wanted them to do.
“Everyone in this case is involved because of him,” Dee said.