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Why American Courtrooms Are Dangerous Places for Young Blacks

Going to trial can be a dangerous gamble, as the harrowing tale of Travion Blount shows.

Before leaving office last week, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell commuted Travion Blount's sentence of six life terms plus 118 years, to 40 years. Blount had been convicted of taking part in an armed robbery that resulted in no serious injuries and netted him $60 and a few joints.

Blount was 15 years old when the original sentence was handed down to him after a two-day trial in 2007. The sentence survived two appeals: first in Virginia's Court of Appeals, and then in the Virginia Supreme Court. According to a statement by his secretary to the Virginian Pilot, McDonnell considered the 40-year sentence a "just punishment." But for Blount, his family, and his lawyer, John Coggeshall, the commutation that was announced is no a victory for justice.

“On any measure, it's a positive step. But that's all it is, a first step,” Coggeshall told AlterNet. According to McDonnell's “conditional pardon,” Blount will live the next four decades in a maximum-security prison, nearly 10 hours away from his family. But Coggeshall says his fight for a fairer sentence for his client is not over.

How did a Virginia courtroom place a young teenager in a maximum-security prison with no chance of making it out alive? Like most other states in the 1990s, Virginia made it much easier to try a juvenile as an adult. Furthermore, the harsh sentence reflects mandatory sentencing laws that helped bloat Virginia's—and the nation's—prison population over the last 30 years, as well as the pernicious degradation of the right to trial throughout the country.

Virginia's incarceration rate is one of the highest in the country. Mirroring the rest of the country, those behind bars are disproportionately black: Virginia's African-American population is just 20 percent of the state's total, but they represent around 60 percent of state prison inmates and 47 percent of all arrests, according to the Justice Policy Institute. Similar over-representation of African Americans occurs among youth arrests and incarceration rates.


In 2006, 15-year-old Travion Blount decided to join two 18-year-old friends who were planning to rob a local drug dealer's home in Norfolk, Virginia. A few days later, all three youths were apprehended. Blount was eventually convicted of 49 criminal offenses, sufficient to lock him up for the rest of his life.

An interactive breakdown of the 20-minute robbery demonstrates how each of Blount's movements—as recounted by the victims—translates to distinct crimes, each contributing to his outsized sentence. As he moved through rooms in the house, waving his alleged gun at 12 individuals at the party, the count-ticker was running: for each person, he got one count for abduction, one for attempted robbery, one for use of firearm, and so on. Of note, according to Coggeshall, the guns alleged to have been at the crime have yet to be recovered, and in any case were likely to have been fake.

The interactive map does not, however, show the fatal mistake Blount made eight years ago: he did not accept the plea bargain offered to him.

Coggeshall says Blount believed that because he was a juvenile, he could not be locked away past the age of 21. This belief was wholly based on a fiction called “juvenile life,” that is commonly bandied about among detainees and others in juvenile facilities.

Prosecutors placed a “bargain” on the table of 18 years, but “I’m sure I could have negotiated it down, if I’d been given the chance,” Coggeshall told AlterNet.

The two other teens who planned the robbery, who were older than Blount by three years, escaped the hammer of Virginia's judicial system by dutifully accepting the plea bargain offered to them; both will be released from their prison terms within the next five years.

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