Robert Davis said he wasn't there the night Nola Charles and her toddler were killed. Eleven years later, both people convicted of the murders are backing his claims of innocence.
Jessica Fugett says she's sorry she falsely implicated Robert Davis and that she waited so long to tell the truth.
photo by Lisa Provence
Robert Davis said all along he didn't do it. Now both of the siblings convicted in the horrific 2003 Crozet murders of Nola Annette Charles and her toddler son say he didn't do it either. But Davis, who has had a clemency petition before Governor Bob McDonnell for a year, continues to languish in prison.
Rocky Fugett, then 19, and his 15-year-old sister Jessica lived across the street from the Charles family. On February 19, 2003, neighbors saw smoke coming out of the Charles house on Cling Lane. Inside, firefighters discovered an even worse scene: Ann Charles had been duct-taped to the bed and stabbed, and three-year-old William had died from smoke inhalation in the fire set to cover up the crime.
Both of the Fugetts named Davis— and other local teens from Western Albemarle High—as accomplices in the murders. Davis repeatedly denied involvement during a six-hour, middle-of-the night interrogation until he uttered the fatal words in what multiple experts now call a textbook case of false confession: "What do I have to say to get out of this?"
In 2011, Rocky Fugett admitted to Hook and Daily Progress reporters that he'd lied about Davis being involved in the murders, and his affidavit swearing to Davis' innocence was part of a hefty clemency petition package sent to McDonnell, along with a supporting 64-page report from the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, and a letter from Joseph Buckley, author of Criminal Interrogations and Confessions, a leading textbook on proper police interrogation techniques.
At that time, Jessica Fugett still insisted that Davis was involved, and that's what she told a special prosecutor assigned to look into Rocky's allegation that Davis had no part in the murders.
On November 26, 2012, she changed her story. In a letter to Davis' attorney, Steve Rosenfield, she wrote, "That was not the truth, and I've now come to understand I was very wrong in this."
In a sworn affidavit that went to the governor, Fugett said, "I falsely implicated Robert in these crimes and I have compounded my regret by allowing a completely innocent man to serve time in prison for crimes he did not commit. Robert was not present or knowledgeable about the crimes I committed; my statements to the police, the special prosecutor and others that Robert was at the scene of the murders was false. I am sorry."
Based on the Fugetts' statements to police and his own confession, which he says was coerced, Davis entered an Alford plea, which allowed to him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging that the prosecution had evidence to convict him in September 2004.
The Davis case has gained national attention as awareness of the seemingly oxymoronic phenomenon of false confession grows. In May, a Dateline NBC crew was in town interviewing people involved in the case.
"The Robert Davis case will be part of an upcoming hour-long Dateline program," says producer Carol Gable, although she is uncertain when it will air.
UVA law professor Brandon Garrett is an expert on false confession, and he says juveniles, the mentally disabled, or suggestible people are most susceptible to offering false confessions. People who are tired or drunk are also vulnerable.
"The interviews in false confessions I looked at lasted over three hours," Garrett told the Hook in 2011. "If someone is exhausted, they think if they just go along with the interrogation, they can clear it up later."
Virginia has had several high-profile false confession cases, including Earl Washington Jr., who spent 18 years behind bars and came within nine days of execution, and the Norfolk Four— four sailors who falsely confessed to a brutal rape and murder. In those cases, DNA evidence supported their innocence.
Davis' confession to Albemarle police "still ranks as one of the most coercive confessions I've ever seen," says Laura Nirider at the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. "No one deserves clemency more than Robert Davis. It's really troubling. I hope someone in the governor's office takes notice of this injustice happening under the nose of the state of Virginia."
Although Governor McDonnell has worked to expedite restoration of felons' rights, he's had Davis' clemency petition for a year. Pardon petitions can take several months or several years, says a woman who declined to give her name answering the phone at the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office, which handles clemency and felon restoration of rights.
"They told me it could be four months to sometime after a new governor comes in," says Rosenfield. "And then it could take four to six months to evaluate this lengthy a petition."
Robert Davis was 18 years old when he was arrested. He's now 29 years old.
"My son's been in prison for 11 years for something he didn't do," says his mother, Sandy Seal. She says her health has suffered, and that her family is a victim, too. "With Rocky telling them and Jessica telling them, Robert shouldn't be in prison," she says.
"It's unimaginable trying to understand how an innocent person thinks and feels under such serious confinement as prison," says Rosenfield. "He's lost 10-and-a-half years of his life— the years that life affords all young people who grow into adulthood."