Unforgivable: The Governor and the Teen-Ager
(by Evan Osnos, THE NEW YORKER, January 6, 2015, Link)
Bob McDonnell, the disgraced ex-governor of Virginia, appealed for the mercy of the court, and he received it. A former Presidential prospect with a career in state politics, McDonnell, along with his wife, Maureen, was convicted in September of trading the powers of his office for loans, shopping sprees, golf trips, a Rolex, and use of a Ferrari and a country home—a pattern that unfolded in the course of eleven months, netting his family a range of pleasures worth a hundred and seventy-seven thousand dollars, until federal prosecutors took notice.
Federal sentencing guidelines called for ten to twelve years. Michael Dry, an assistant United States attorney who prosecuted the case, called the series of abuses “unprecedented in Virginia’s two-hundred-and-twenty-six-year history,” and sought six and a half years. McDonnell’s defense attorneys asked for no prison time. They proposed instead six thousand hours of community service and in court presented eleven witnesses, including another former governor and an N.F.L. star, who argued for leniency. The witnesses said that McDonnell cared little for material possessions; the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates reported that the conviction itself would be a sufficient deterrent to others; the governor’s sister said her brother was already so grieved that he had trouble eating and was losing weight. While pleading for the judge’s grace, even McDonnell’s lawyer choked up.
By the time the U.S. district judge James Spencer rendered his sentence, he sounded almost as pained. “It breaks my heart, but I have a duty I can’t avoid,” Spencer said. In a lengthy preamble, he compared himself to the Roman prefect who reluctantly condemned Jesus Christ. “Unlike Pontius Pilate, I can’t wash my hands of it all,” Spencer said. “A meaningful sentence must be imposed.”
He sentenced McDonnell to two years, a term of such impressive leniency that McDonnell’s first words outside the courthouse in Richmond were ones of thanks to the justice system. Dry, the prosecutor, left the court without comment, “his face twisted in anger,” as a reporter put it. For comparison purposes, prosecutors had argued that McDonnell’s deeds went on far longer than those of Phillip A. Hamilton, a former Virginia lawmaker convicted, in 2011, of bribery and extortion and sentenced to nine and a half years, and that McDonnell’s office was higher than that of Hamilton. (Another former governor, Rod Blagojevich, of Illinois, is serving fourteen years.)
American sentencing today rests on a mix of improvisation, unthinking bureaucracy, power, and cruelty. To see it in the round, you need not leave Virginia. Consider a comparison, handed down in a different Virginia courtroom, in March, 2008, to considerably less attention. The defendant, Travion Blount, had no former governors or sitting Speakers or N.F.L. stars to testify to his character. His crime, as the Virginian-Pilot described it in a 2013 report, did not attract much attention: “No shots were fired, and he didn’t hit any victims. It did not merit a mention in the morning newspaper.”
Blount had joined the Crips at the age of eleven. By the fall of 2006, when he was fifteen, he was repeating the sixth grade for the fourth time. His mother had asked the truancy court and other agencies to try to get him into a program. That September, Blount and two older teen-agers set out to rob a drug dealer at a house party near Norfolk Naval Station. The three of them pulled guns. At one point, Blount tried to give his pistol to one of the other attackers, who pushed it back into his hands. They stole money, marijuana, and cell phones. While Blount was in another part of the house, one of his fellow-assailants got angry with a victim for being slow to hand over a wallet and hit him in the head with a gun, cutting his scalp. The heist took about twenty minutes. Police caught them within a week, and they were charged with armed robbery and related offenses.
His two co-defendants (both eighteen years old) pleaded guilty. Prosecutors offered Blount a plea that would carry a mandated term of at least eighteen years; if he didn’t take it, they said, they would bring additional charges. To a seventeen-year-old, eighteen years in jail seemed interminable. According to the Virginian-Pilot’s Louis Hansen, “Blount was stubborn. He thought he was innocent of some charges. He was willing to fight.”
Blount lost. He had faced fifty-one felonies—including illegal use of a firearm, robbery, and abduction. The jury found him guilty on forty-nine of them. At the sentencing, in March 2008, the judge said the gun crimes carried fixed punishments in Virginia, so his sentence for the weapons charge came to a hundred and eighteen years. On top of that, because the crime involved robbing three juveniles at gunpoint, the judge added six life sentences. The Virginian-Pilot wrote that the sentence “may be the harshest in America for a teen who didn’t commit murder.”
Blount’s lawyers say that six life sentences for a teen-ager involved in a gun crime in which no shots were fired is cruel and unusual, a violation of the constitution; they want him to receive a sentence comparable to his co-defendants’ terms of ten and thirteen years. The Equal Justice Initiative (E.J.I.), a nonprofit, represented Blount in an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, but the court turned it down, maintaining its position that teen offenders already have a merciful option in the form of “geriatric release”—the right to appeal once they turn sixty years old. As of 2013, Blount was one of at least twenty-two Virginia inmates doing life for a non-homicide crime committed as a teen.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court banned life without parole for minors not involved in homicide. But Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of E.J.I., told me that “Virginia has been deliberately indifferent” to revisiting sentences like Blount’s. “Virginia has taken the position that it doesn’t need to implement the Court’s ruling and reform their laws because clemency or executive-branch oversight through geriatric parole is adequate.” After the McDonnell ruling, Stevenson told me, “It’s a little ironic that the executive branch the Virginia courts and legislature have relied on to protect people from unfair sentences has now been exposed with evidence of corruption, but the remedy is to be very lenient toward the executive and let everyone else rot in prison.”
Last January, in a brief intersection of fates, Bob McDonnell, who was then still governor, commuted Travion Blount’s sentence to forty years. But, in August, while McDonnell was on trial, a federal judge struck down that commutation. Unless something changes, Blount will be in prison at least until his sixtieth birthday, in 2051.
Outside the courthouse yesterday, after expressing his gratitude to the court system, McDonnell began the long march back to resurrection. “I am a fallen human being. I have made mistakes in my life,” he said. His wife will be sentenced on February 20th. During the trial, his lawyers had done their best to shift the blame to her. But McDonnell asked the judge that “whatever mercy you might have, you grant it first to my wife, Maureen.”
April 21, 2019