Travion Smith, a 23-year-old who was convicted of first-degree murder earlier this week, was singled out early in his school years as a child who needed extra attention.
Not only had Smith’s mother abandoned him when he was a toddler, but family and psychologists who encountered him through the schools also described him as a victim of abuse and neglect.
Smith faces the possibility of being sent to North Carolina’s death row. A six-man, six-woman jury found him guilty Wednesday of murdering Melissa Huggins-Jones, a mother of two.
Huggins-Jones had moved to Raleigh shortly before her death in May 2013 to start a new chapter of life. She had recently split up with her husband and selected an apartment in a North Hills complex, hoping it would be a safe place to raise her daughter and son.
Prosecutors pointed out in their closing arguments in the capital murder trial that at about the same time Huggins-Jones was moving to Raleigh with her daughter, Hannah, 8 years old then, Smith was moving into a home in Oxford with the 25-year-old man also convicted of murdering Huggins-Jones.
Ronald Lee Anthony pleaded guilty to murdering the 30-year-old mother of two, who suffered 18 wounds in the bludgeoning death caused by a blunt object and something sharp, such as a knife.
Defense attorneys have described Smith as a follower who was vulnerable to being misled by people who did not always have his best interests in mind.
That was a theme on Wednesday and Thursday as the defense team tried to persuade the jury that will sentence Smith about mitigating circumstances that should dissuade them from capital punishment.
Travion Devonte Smith was born 23 years ago to a mother who struggled with alcohol and crack cocaine abuse.
Neighbors and family members described an early existence for Smith in which his mother would disappear for days at a time, often leaving the family without food or clean clothes. One neighbor recalled finding Smith and his older brother on a mattress in the middle of a room with no one there to take care of them.
Eventually, Smith and his three brothers all were sent to live with different relatives. Two of the brothers who ended up with grandparents testified earlier this week about going into the armed services and getting out, going to college and beginning careers.
They encouraged their younger brother, who lived with his father, to follow a similar path.
This week, he sat at a courtroom table as siblings, teachers, social workers and psychologists described Smith’s trouble-ridden path.
He was hospitalized several times before he reached high school for mental health issues. He was in alternate school programs that kept him out of the mainstream classroom.
Kristina Love, a half-sister who had the same father as Smith, described a volatile relationship between father and son.
Love, who called her father the night before she was to testify, said he hung up on her after cursing her out and telling her that he was not responsible for his son’s troubles.
“He did not want me to reveal who he is as a person, or who he was as a parent,” Love said. She said she witnessed beatings and a callousness that made her eventually end her relationship with her father.
Defense attorneys called others who made similar observations about Smith’s father being unable or unwilling to do what was necessary to get his son the help he needed.
In his early years in school, Smith was prescribed medication for attention deficit disorder and depression.
He did a brief stint in a residential program, where he spent weekdays living on a special school campus, then returned to his father’s home on weekends.
His father pulled him out of those programs, and several witnesses for the defense testified on Thursday that they thought that was the wrong move.
In ninth grade, Smith was sent to Puzzle Piece Programs, which was created to give children who had gone through difficult times in their lives “a partner” to guide them toward a life-changing experience.
The founder of the program and a counselor there described Smith as a goofy and impressionable student whom they liked.
Prosecutors asked questions to counter those images, asking about school suspensions in which Smith was accused of getting into fights and disrupting class.
The defense finished calling witnesses for the sentencing phase on Thursday afternoon. Prosecutors, who called Huggins-Jones’ daughter, Hannah, to testify on Wednesday, have an opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses.
The case will go to the jury after that. For a death sentence to be handed down, the jury must be unanimous in its decision.
A Wake County jury has not sentenced anyone to death since 2007.