Innocent kid? Davis clemency petition inches toward governor
While Michael Hash recently was freed after a judge's ruling of police and prosecutorial misconduct, another Central Virginian controversially convicted as a teen remains in prison, waiting for his clemency petition to reach the governor.
Nine months after a special prosecutor was appointed to look into his case, 27-year-old Robert Davis still languishes behind bars, passing a grim ninth anniversary for a brutal murder he says he didn't commit. Since last year's media attention, his claim of innocence has been bolstered by a legal clinic at Northwestern University Law School, which considers the Davis conviction a textbook case of false confession.
"We have seen the videotape and the transcript," says Laura Nirider, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. "To all of us, it stands out as one of the most intense police interrogations we've ever seen."
The February 2003 fatal stabbing of Nola Annette "Ann" Charles, 41, in her Cling Lane bed in Crozet, and the cover-up fire that killed her three-year-old toddlerThomas, horrified a community, all the more so when three teens who lived in the neighborhood were convicted of the murders.
Davis' lawyer, Steve Rosenfield, has always maintained that Davis was coerced into making a false confession. That idea gained credence in 2006, when one of the convicted teens, William "Rocky" Fugett, sentenced to 75 years in prison, contacted Rosenfield, and said that Davis, 18 at the time of the slayings, was not present that night and had nothing to do with the murders. Fugett also implicated a teen who was never charged: Ann Charles' then 15-year-old daughter Wendie.
Rosenfield says he waited until the third convict– Rocky's sister Jessica, who was sentenced to 100 years and admits stabbing Charles– completed her appeals before attempting to get a special prosecutor appointed to the case in the hopes that the prosecutor would support the clemency petition for Davis.
Because Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford represented Davis when she was in private practice, she could not reopen the case, so the task went to Fluvanna Commonwealth's Attorney Jeff Haislip, who was appointed July 9.
Haislip says he has an investigator who has interviewed "everyone who would be interviewed." However, one glaring omission is revealed when a reporter speaks with Haislip on March 15: the recanting convict, Rocky Fugett, now incarcerated in Sussex II State Prison.
"I'm not sure why that hasn't been set up," says Haislip. "We're going to get down there soon with my assistant and a couple of other people." He adds, "I'm tired of walking around these boxes," he says in reference to the case files.
In 2011, Fugett told reporters from the Hook and the Daily Progress that Davis wasn't involved in the crime, that he and his sister simply enjoyed the idea of sharing the blame by naming other Western Albemarle High School students as accomplices. Fugett says he never expected Davis to confess.
Like the better-known Innocence Project, Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth has already won 10 exonerations since its start in 2009, and worked informally on several notorious Virginia false-confession cases, says co-director Nirider. These include the Norfolk Four and the Culpeper Three, the latter of which involves Michael Hash.
The organization plans to file a report to accompany the clemency petition to Governor Bob McDonnell that explains why they believe Davis made a false confession.
Davis was subjected to a five-hour, middle-of-the-night interrogation by a man he says he considered a friend, former Albemarle police officer Randy Snead, whom Davis knew as a school resource officer. Snead, who unsuccessfully ran for Greene County sheriff last year, did not respond to an email request for comment.
"Robert was threatened with the death penalty– the ultimate punishment– seven or nine times, which is a lot," says Nirider.
"The most interesting thing is at the end when Robert says, 'What can I say to get me out of this? Am I a murderer?'" recounts Nirider. "Every fact is fed directly to him."
Says Nirider: "It's hard to believe anyone would believe this confession."
The special prosecutor could choose to prosecute– or not– the third party named by Fugett, and could support the notion Davis is innocent, explains attorney Rosenfield. Or not.
"Whatever the special prosecutor does, that does not get Robert out of prison," says Rosenfield. "Only the governor gets him out. We're working parallel to the special prosecutor."
He plans to file Davis' clemency petition by the end of April.
"For a guy who's innocent, Robert has a very hopeful outlook," says Rosenfield. "Other times, he's depressed."