Jury recommends life in prison for Travion Smith for murder of Raleigh mom

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Is the death penalty dead in Wake County?

After hearing closing arguments Monday in the death penalty phase of the Travion Smith murder trial, the jury has recommended life in prison. A Wake County jury hasn't recommended the death penalty since 2007.

This Wake County jury's decision to spare Smith from the death penalty had the district attorney openly asking Monday night whether Wake County citizens no longer believe in capital punishment.

"This is the sixth case in a row that we've sought the death penalty and not gotten it, and I do think at some point we have to step back and say, has the community sent us a message on that?" District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said.

Last week, Smith was convicted of beating and stabbing of 30-year-old Melissa Huggins-Jones, who was found dead by her 8-year-old daughter inside their North Hills apartment in May 2013. Smith and another man climbed up to a second-floor balcony to get into her apartment after breaking into cars in the neighborhood to steal small valuables.

In a statement after the jury announced its verdict, Huggin-Jones' mother called her daughter an amazing person.

"All lives matter to someone, including yours, Travion. Your life matters to your family. No child should have to grow up without a mother," said Dawn Wallace.

Wallace told Smith that it's her wish that he should never see his own child ever again.

"You took away my daughter and my grand children's mother, but you cannot take the many wonderful memories of our Melissa," Wallace continued.

After the family statements, Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway sentenced Smith to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Smith's sister Kristina Love, said she empathized with Huggin-Jones' family.

"I definitely feel for them, tremendously," she said.

In her closing arguments, prosecutor Melani Shekita told jurors Huggins-Jones was killed for just an iPhone.

During the trial, the defense called several members of Smith's family to testify about his abusive childhood, trying to get the jury to spare his life. But in her closing, Shekita attacked that evidence.

"Travion didn't live behind a white picket fence and have the perfect life - nobody does," offered Shekita as she pointed out that Smith has siblings who did succeed despite the difficult childhood.

Shekita said Smith did suffer from ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, and depression - for which he was prescribed medication. But over the objection of the defense, she argued many middle school students suffer from similar conditions but don't kill people.

"They're trying to blame his mother and his father," said Shekita.

In his closing, prosecutor Jason Waller said Smith deserved the death penalty for the brutality of the crime. He said he and his accomplice stabbed Huggins-Jones 18 times in her bed - even stabbing her in the face. He said it took her a while to die as she bled out.

"She went to bed with her daughter down the hall and these guys came in and did this! Why? For an iPhone," Waller said.

In her rebuttal, defense attorney Phoebe Dee asked jurors not dismiss how hard Smith's childhood was. She said when his father learned his mother was pregnant, he beat her and punched her in the stomach in an attempt to cause a miscarriage. She called his upbringing incredibly difficult at the hands of two parents who didn't want him.

Perhaps the jury was swayed by Dee and Smith's relatives, who argued that the difficult upbringing put him on the wrong path.

"The circumstances that have been presented to you regarding Travion's background are true," Dee said.

Defense attorney Jonathan Broun asked for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole - calling that harsh and severe enough for the crime.

Broun told jurors the death penalty should be reserved for "the worst of the worst and "that's just not Travion."

Last September, Smith's accomplice Ronald Anthony pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The plea deal spared him the death penalty.

Charges against Sarah Redden, who allegedly acted as lookout and who agreed to testify against Smith, remain.

"I'm very thankful that his life has been spared," Love said. "Only thing I can do is guarantee moving forward that those who love him and care for him can motivate him to be the best he can be."

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