Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Out of Context

with 2 comments

A couple of days ago, a writer whose work I like very much posted a status saying that she had cursed somebody out on FB, and that she didn’t feel bad about it.  The was because the woman she had cursed out had declared herself in favor of a sentence that had been given to a 15 year old boy for stealing a few trinkets, a wallet and some pot from people at a party.

I am trying to be very careful  how I state this here, because that original status did not include much in the way of detail–not the charges, not the state, nothing.

The sentence, by the way, was a doozy–six life sentences, plus more, adding up to life plus 60 years.

The comments that followed this post were more or less expected–the declaration that no sentence like this would ever be given to a white teenager, who would have gotten “probation” instead, and all the rest of it.

But this story bothered me, and, I am happy to say bothered a number of other people as well, and eventually somebody posted a link to the full story.

I don’t know that this link is the same one, but it’s a good one. So you can go here to get the particulars:


As you can see, the story is far more complicated than it was first announced to be.

And, of course, I knew that from off. It is almost never the case that judges can hand out any sentence at all from 118 years to probation at their own discretion.

Judicial discretion in sentencing is limited by law and sometimes completely obviated by it–that’s what “mandatory minimums” are all about.

You don’t have to disagree with the contention hat there is something obscene about h anding a sentence of 118 years to a 15 year old for a robbery in which nobody was actually hurt to understand that what actually happened here had nothing to do with either racism or a bitch judge.

First, we’re talking about an armed robbery–it doesn’t matter what the worth of the loot is, if you bring a gun, even if you don’t use it, the sentencing guidelines start going through the roof.

I don’t know what this writer’s position is on gun control, but I do know that most of the people I know who are in favor of stringent gun control think that increasing sentences for use of a gun is a good thing.

Second, the robbery took place over twenty minutes and apparently scared the crap out of the victims.  In other words, the crime was not quite the same thing as just taking a few little bits and pieces.

As the story was originally told in the status, it sounded as if the kid has been a guest at the party, or a gate crasher, and had snuck around taking things.  

That was not what happened, and what did happen was considerably more serious.

Third, the kid was offered a plea bargain, which his two co-criminals and were also offered and which they accepted.

I have a lot of problems with the plea bargain system, especially when it concerns juveniles and near-juveniles, black or white.

Kids with broken families and few resources–white as well as black–are shoved into taken plea bargains for things they haven’t done, being advised that they’re likely to be convicted even if they’re not guilty, so they might as well get as little time as possible.

This case, however, is a prime example of what plea bargains are for, for a number of reasons.

a) the kid was guilty, and had pretty much admitted it.  He refused to take the plea bargain because he didn’t think he was guilty of “everything” they were charging him with.

b) the two other kids who had taken part in the robbery had both accepted plea bargains, and it’s guaranteed that part of the conditions for those bargains would be their willingness to testify against Travion Blount at trial

and, finally–drum roll, please–the BIG one

c) conviction for armed robbery in this state carried statutorially mandated life terms.

In other words, the people who were complaining about racist sentencing–saying that a white kid would have gotten much less in the way of jail time, or none at all–were wrong.

White or black, young or old, anybody tried and convicted as an adult of armed robbery would be stuck in the same place.

What bothers me about all this is that I can’ see the point of truncating the story to begin with.

There is nothing about the real incident that makes giving a 15 year old kid a 118 year sentence right, or even comprehensible. 

Sometimes you do see stories like this that have been truncated because not to truncate would be to make the sentence seem at least understandable–about twenty years ago there was a case in Chicago, I think, where three young girls were given life without parole for the murder of an elderly woman in their neighborhood.  The girls were black, the woman was white, and protests were lodged from Germany and France as well as the United States.

The protests stopped when the state released details of the crime and pictures from the crime scene–a bludgeoning death so brutal the victim’s face was unrecognizable as human, or even animal.

Nothing in this case was even remotely comparable.  No one was hurt during the robbery.  Not much was taken.  And the whole thing sounds like a trio of rank idiots on amateur night.

Travion Blount had the right to plea as he wanted to plea, but I think if I had been his lawyer, I’d have quit when he refused to take the bargain. 

That lawyer must have known what was inevitably going to happen here. 

And as far as I can tell, the lawyer did try to explain it to ravion Blount. 

There are issues here that need to be addressed.

One of them is the question of when we charge juvenile as adults.  I’m almost never happy with that one, but I do sort of get it when the crime is the kind of savagery evidences in the Chicago case.  With this one,  I can’t see the rationale.

The other is the extent to which we limit judicial discretion in sentencing.  I know there was a concern, for a while, over judges who gave minimal sentences for violent crimes, but there needs to be some mechanism to allow a judge to fix a situation like this.

And the situation needed fixing.

The governor of Virginia did reduce Travion Blount’s sentence, eventually–to 40 years, still a long hall.

I have no idea if that is “appropriate” or not in this case–no idea what else the kid may have done in his life, no idea if there are other issues here the news stories don’t make us aware of.

The governor is on record as saying he things the 40 year sentence is exactly what’s justified here.  The state attorney general and the original prosecutors are on record as saying that the original sentence should have stood.

But making an incident like this sound like something it’s not isn’t helping anybody on any side of this argument.



Written by janeh

April 21st, 2014 at 10:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Out of Context'

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  1. Well, if you stated the case fully and fairly someone might disagree with you who WOULD agree with you if you buried some of the evidence. The people who operate on that principle have clearly been spending too much time with our politicians–but then lots of people do.

    The sentence. I’m generally opposed to stacking up charges, which seems to be very common these days. I could see breaking and entering and armed robbery, but after that you’re just finding a different way of describing the same action so you can charge the guy again.

    I’m supportive in principle of mandatory minimums, though. A certain number of judges will turn out to be nutcases, and we make it very hard to remove them from the bench–and almost impossible to reverse the sort of miscarriage of justice which comes of a brutal crime and a wrist slap sentence.

    And I have mixed feelings about charging juveniles as adults. In some cases–horrible rapes and murders committed by 15 year olds–I don’t see a way around it. This does not seem to be such a case. But we also encourage this by some of our juvenile courts. I’d be very curious to know just what could have been done in juvenile court had anyone been so inclined.

    As far as the sentence goes, I’d have to check, but I think Virginia mostly paroles around the half-way point. Allow a little for a sympathetic governor–there’s bound to be one, eventually–and I’d expect him to be out before he’s 30 if he doesn’t knife someone while in prison. Of course, I wouldn’t expect a person in prison for half his life to do anything but crime when he got out–but that’s a different problem.

    Better vocational training and probation departments, anyone? They’re cheaper than prisons.


    21 Apr 14 at 6:08 pm

  2. Australia has people complaining of lenient sentences. Typically, A hits B, B falls down and hits his head on the curb or sidewalk and has a brain injury. Life support is turned off after several days.

    A is convicted of manslaughter and gets a 4 year sentence. (Its not murder because murder requires an intent to kill,)

    Then we get howls of rage “He killed a man and only got 4 years” or “A man’s life is only worth 4 years in prison?”

    Thread hijack alert.


    I hadn’t heard of the case but was interested to see that liberals *Huffington Post) jumped to the conclusion that FOX was wrong.


    22 Apr 14 at 2:18 am

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