Victim's mother: North Hills mom was 'good-hearted soul'
Posted February 2, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — After a monthlong jury selection process, the trial of a 23-year-old Raleigh man charged in the 2013 death of a mother in her North Hills apartment began Tuesday morning.
Travion Devonte Smith is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Melissa Huggins-Jones in May 2013.
Huggins-Jones, 30, had recently divorced and moved from Tennessee to an apartment complex off Six Forks Road. She started a new job and a new life caring for her 8-year-old daughter, Hannah Olivia Jones. Huggins-Jones’ son had stayed behind with his father in Tennessee to finish the school year.
On the morning of May 14, 2013, Hannah wandered out of the apartment and approached a nearby construction crew, asking for help. A construction worker followed the girl back into the apartment and found Huggins-Jones dead in her bed, covered in blood.
An autopsy determined that she died from repeated blows to her head and neck.
On Tuesday, attorneys made brief opening statements before testimony got underway.
Defense attorneys say Smith was a follower and was manipulated to participate in the events that night because of Ronald Anthony.
Anthony pleaded guilty in 2015 to first-degree murder in Huggins-Jones’ death and was sentenced to life in prison.
"Ronald Anthony was 23. He was charming, likeable and charismatic," said defense attorney Jonathan Broun. "But Ronald Anthony had a dark side. He is a criminal."
Prosecutors argue that Smith is equally culpable and that Huggins-Jones' death did not need to happen.
"They were acting in concert. They started the events that day, completed the events that night and afterwards even remained together," said Wake County Assistant District Attorney Melanie Shekita.
The first witness to take the stand was Robert Pittman, a construction worker who found Hannah that morning while working on the property. Pittman said he found the girl crying, standing by a fence in a nightgown.
"She said she had tried to wake her mother but couldn't and that there was blood on (her mother's) face," Pittman said.
Pittman and his supervisor, Thomas Finn, accompanied the child to the apartment and found Huggins-Jones' body.
"She had blood all over her face. There was blood everywhere," Pittman said. "I put two fingers on her wrist, and there was no pulse. She was cold as a block of ice."
Pittman said he was talking to a 911 dispatcher while searching for a pulse, but it was too late to save Huggins-Jones.
Finn testified that he made the difficult call to Huggins-Jones' mother, Dawn Wallace.
"I told them they needed to get here right away," he said.
Wallace took to the stand and described the moment she got the call.
"I heard it, but I didn't hear it. I didn't understand," she said. "Within 10 or 15 minutes, we were in the car headed to Raleigh."
Wallace said she had spent time with her daughter and granddaughter the previous night.
"Melissa was happy, excited, a little stressed, but excited to be (in Raleigh)," Wallace said.
Wallace said she felt guilty she had not spent time with her daughter during her first weekend in town, but she was grateful able to make it over to her new apartment in time for dinner.
"She was a good-hearted soul who treated everyone the same...with love and respect," Wallace said of her daughter. "People at the bank just loved her."
The state contends that Smith and Anthony killed Huggins-Jones during a burglary at her apartment. Authorities caught them when the men attempted to sell laptops they took from the scene.
Sarah Rene Redden, of Wake Forest, is also charged in the case. She admitted to being the getaway driver.
Prosecutors said the three suspects had been breaking into cars in the area earlier that evening and that Redden had served as a lookout at a different apartment complex.
On Tuesday afternoon, several witnesses living in the Ramblewood community testified to having their cars broken into the night Huggins-Jones was killed.
Redden has not been offered a plea deal and is still expected to testify. The judge will review her statements and question her before she gets in front of a jury. Redden's defense attorney, Rosemary Godwin, said Redden wasn't inside the apartment when Huggins-Jones was killed.
If convicted, Smith, who was 20 at the time of the crime, faces the possibility of the death penalty. The trial is expected to last four weeks.