Crime

Girl who found mother dead in North Hills apartment testifies

Travion Devonte Smith, alongside of defense attorney Phoebe Dee, listens to testimony from Claudia White, a former neighbor of Smith's, in a Wake County courtroom after a recess in Raleigh on Feb. 17, 2016. Smith is charged in connection of the murder of Melissa Huggins-Jones at her apartment in the North Hills area in May 2013.
Travion Devonte Smith, alongside of defense attorney Phoebe Dee, listens to testimony from Claudia White, a former neighbor of Smith's, in a Wake County courtroom after a recess in Raleigh on Feb. 17, 2016. Smith is charged in connection of the murder of Melissa Huggins-Jones at her apartment in the North Hills area in May 2013. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Hannah Olivia Jones, the girl who found her mother dead in a North Hills apartment in May 2013, told jurors on Wednesday some of what she remembered from that day, when she walked in on a scene that forever changed her life.

Hannah, now 11, was composed for most of her testimony until she was asked by prosecutors what she missed about her mother, Melissa Huggins-Jones.

Hannah started to speak, then emotion choked her words. She was able to get out how much she enjoyed walks with her mother, before her emotions overwhelmed her again.

Hannah took the witness stand the day after Travion Devonte Smith, 23, was convicted of murdering her mother. As jurors heard evidence for and against the death penalty from prosecutors and defense attorneys, she responded to questions about why she might not have heard lots of commotion on the night the violence occurred.

Prosecutors contend that Smith and Ronald Lee Anthony took turns bludgeoning Huggins-Jones to death. She suffered 18 blows, and Smith told investigators in an interrogation before his arrest that he heard the victim release a “horrifying scream” that reminded him of a horror movie.

Hannah said she always slept with a fan on in her room.

She recounted finding her mother on the morning of May 14, 2013, before she went outside the apartment, barefooted, crying and still dressed in her pajamas.

“She wasn’t alive,” Hannah recalled.

A carpenter who was sweeping up at a nearby construction site early that morning encountered Hannah at the edge of the construction site, clasping the fence with her tiny hands.

The worker then collected her hand in his and walked with her back to the second-story apartment, where prosecutors say Smith and Anthony had climbed after pulling themselves over a balcony railing.

After emergency crews arrived at the apartment where Hannah and her mother had recently moved, one of the responders tried to distract her. The girl drew a heart on EKG paper and wrote her mom’s name on the left side of the heart and her name on the right side. It was her way of keeping her mother close to her heart.

Defense attorneys said late Wednesday that they hoped to finish with their last witness on Thursday. They then asked for time to prepare the mitigating factors they would like the jury to consider as they weigh whether Smith should get a death sentence or life in prison without possibility for parole.

Two of Smith’s three brothers and other family members who took the stand for the defense described Smith’s troubled early years.

Smith’s mother, who struggled with substance abuse issues, told the jury that she gave her four sons to her parents to raise. She also said that child protective services had been involved with their lives, too.

Family and a neighbor recalled Smith’s mother disappearing for days at a time when Smith was young, leaving him and a brother, no more than two years older, to fend for themselves in an unstable environment. The boys often were hungry and there was no food for them. Their mother sometimes had food, but did not share it with them. She also had put beer and alcohol in baby bottles for the younger boys when they were toddlers so they would go to sleep and not be underfoot.

At one point, a welfare services worker found the boys inside a home where the heat had been turned off and the only source of warmth was an oven that was left open to warm the home.

Eventually Smith’s brother Aaron, who is closest in age to him, was sent to live with his paternal grandmother. The boys had different fathers. Aaron went into the Marines several days after graduating from high school, did a four-year stint and then went to college in Florida. He now is married, has a 6-year-old child and is continuing his education.

Defense attorneys called an older brother, too, who recalled seeing Travion as a young boy in need of clothes and food.

The older brother, who lived with their paternal grandparents, also went into the armed services to improve his opportunities for getting an education and a career.

Prosecutors asked both brothers whether they had tried to advise Travion to follow a similar path. They both said they had and acknowledged that if he had asked them for help along the way, they would have done what they could for him.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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