By Matthew Whalan
October 5, 2011
There is an African American man named Jimmy Davis Jr. who sits in a cell in Alabama, in the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore on death row. He was charged with capital murder for the shooting and killing of Johnny Hazel, a Direct Oil service station attendant during an attempted armed robbery at around 7:15 P.M. at 20th and Noble streets in Anniston, Alabama, on March 17th, 1993.
Davis was sentenced to death in 1994, seventeen years ago, and has been sitting on death row ever since. Every day he waits: he waits for verdicts and appeals and information and ultimately, he waits and wonders if he will live outside of his current confinement again.
A running theme in this country is that it advertises its “freedom.” Many people may see freedom in the form of a good job, a good house, family, an American flag under the porch light, football for three hours every Sunday. Others may see it as the opposite; living within one’s self, examining the self, finding love, living deeply. For some freedom comes in the form of free speech or democracy. The list goes on.
But Jimmy Davis Jr. and others in his situation exercise the bravest form of freedom there is; the freedom to live. He lives in a ten foot by ten foot or so space, many want him dead, and many do not even know that he is alive, but he breathes and waits every day of his life. He lives in spite of the condemnation that the United States “justice” system may throw at him. He lives simply for life itself. That is freedom.
Davis was appointed a lawyer on April 9th 1993 by Judge Gus Colvin. The lawyer was Caucasian. His name was Steven D. Giddens. Giddens’ only experience in a capital murder case prior to representing Davis, had been as second chair defense counsel in State of Alabama v. Charles Lawhorn, but he was replaced before ever completing that assignment. Davis’ preliminary hearing took place in Calhoun County District Court. Giddens himself admits that he did not prepare for the preliminary hearing and his only preparation was “a few minutes” of conversation about this case with Davis beforehand.
The case went to the jury at 12:55 p.m. on Friday, December 10th, 1993, a guilty charge on the verdict of capital murder was returned at 3:40. On the same day the sentencing phase started at 4:30 p.m. He was found guilty by the jury at 7:10 p.m. on a 7 to 5 vote, and then again twenty minutes later at 7:30 on an 11 to 1 vote, and the jury was dismissed at 7:40. His life was determined in approximately six hours and fifteen minutes.
Three other men were arrested with Davis, two of whom were cousins, Alphonso and Terrance Phillips, and Willie Smith, a friend. There was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime, and the gun was found buried in the backyard of the Phillips’ cousins’ residence. Davis was the oldest, at age 22, Willie Smith was 21, Alphonso Phillips was 17, and Terrence Phillips was sixteen. All three got off on plea bargain sentences.
Jimmy Davis’ IQ test showed his IQ at 77, a score that hovers on borderline retardation. Steven Giddens and second defense counsel Jonathan Adams made no effort to interview anyone important to Davis’ life.
In March of 1993, Davis would often stay at the home of his aunt, Betty Jacobs. The house was 8-10 minutes from the Direct Oil station by car. Davis’ cousin, Cynthia Jacobs who was living in the house at this time, testified that Davis was at the house on that Alabama evening until around 8 p.m. Betty Jacobs returned home by car that night around 8 p.m., and Davis came out on the porch and informed her that he was off to play cards, and this was after the time of the murder. If Davis was in fact home that night at that time, it is not likely that he could have committed the murder and gotten home so fast, not to mention the fact that the murder weapon was not recovered from Jimmy Davis, but from Alphonso Davis. There is no physical evidence linking Jimmy Davis to the crime and no eyewitness accounts, other than the plea bargains of Alphonso and Terrence Phillips.
There was a man named Troymetrius Crook who was involved in a robbery on March 16th, the day before the robbery and killing that Jimmy Davis was arrested for, but Davis’ defense counsel made no effort to investigate whether or not Crook was involved in the Direct Oil shooting. Troymetrius Crook fitted the description of the suspect seen fleeing the scene at Direct Oil, while Jimmy Davis Jr. did not.
Steven Giddens and Jonathan Adams evidently made no effort in supporting Davis’ innocence. Davis’ family history of his being mentally and physically abused as a boy was not considered in the penalty phase of the case either.
It is no secret that an overwhelming majority of men on death row are African American, and an overwhelming majority of judges, lawyers, prosecutors and investigators are white. It is also no secret that in the past, many death row inmates have been innocent; in some cases a majority of death row inmates were innocent. There are very few Caucasians on death row. This country still struggles with ignorance and racism. I want to dry heave as I type those words.
Jimmy Davis Jr. has spent almost half of his life on death row based on little evidence and a pathetic defense counsel in the early going.
In 1999, my grandfather, Jack Lahr, a Washington, D.C. attorney who was about to retire stepped into the case as Davis’ lawyer. Joined by two other attorneys and two investigators, they whip up uncovered evidence of a constitutionally defensible case — a case that Davis’ initial defense counsel did not represent.
For as long as I can remember, on summer visits down to Washington D.C. and Annapolis, there were brief conversations over meals or on the boat about the death row cases that my grandfather picked up. He was always openly passionate about this work and it was always a topic of interest among the family. Lahr has been a lawyer all of his life and opposes the death penalty. He is also a religious man, and I distinctly remember, when once asked over dinner if he believes in many teachings of the Bible, how come he doesn’t believe in “an eye for an eye,” he replied: “Because that goes against everything in the Bible about forgiveness.”
When I asked my grandfather if he remembers anything about meeting Davis for the first time, he told me that the prison was a depressing place and said that, “Going to that jail was such an unbelievable experience.” He told me that it was hard to establish trust with Jimmy Davis Jr., and probably rightfully so, as lawyers had not been fair to Davis. But despite the fact that it was not easy, he and Davis did establish trust. Davis and Lahr exchange letters monthly, as my grandfather has been working extremely hard on this case for over twelve years now.
My grandfather’s story is equally compelling to me, because my grandfather’s story is the story of a man who takes a volunteer job to defend lives and fight for what is right that he believes should be the will driving the justice system. My grandfather has compassionately and relentlessly defended the life of Jimmy Davis Jr. and every man, innocent or not, who sits on death row due to racism or unfair trials. For all of this time my grandfather’s moral compass has led him to fight for honesty and to preserve human life, and that too, is an original form of freedom.