The Private Trial of Donald Davis

A Houston attorney who specialized in saving killers' lives couldn't handle his own. So he took it.

The first day of summer was not a good one for Houston police officer Randy Carodine. As he drove to his cousin's house on Laurel Drive in Riverside Terrace, just south of Texas Southern University, that Wednesday afternoon in June, Carodine knew he was probably too late. He knew what he was likely to find.

The night before, Carodine had called his cousin, noted criminal defense attorney Donald Davis, to see how he was doing. Davis claimed he was fine, but an earlier call to Carodine's home that evening had indicated otherwise. A criminal courthouse clerk who was friends with Davis had alerted Carodine that for the past two days Davis had been a no-show at a capital murder trial in which Davis was co-counsel for the defense.

Obviously things in Davis's life were not fine, and the no-show was an undeniable sign of it. Davis, after all, seemingly lived to perform the legal high-wire act of defending people facing the death penalty, and he was very good at keeping them off the state's ghastly waiting list otherwise known as death row. According to the Harris County district clerk's office, Davis was involved in representing at least 30 capital murder defendants between 1987 and this past summer, in addition to the rest of his heavy caseload; that's a formidable number of capital murder cases in any county, but especially in Harris, which sends more people to death row than any state in the country. In 11 of those cases, Davis's clients came away with life sentences. To some, a life sentence in prison might not seem like a victory, but it sure beats the hell out of a date with the executioner's needle.

Houston police officer Randy Carodine and Donald Davis were more like brothers than cousins.
Deron Neblett
Houston police officer Randy Carodine and Donald Davis were more like brothers than cousins.
Houston police officer Randy Carodine and Donald Davis were more like brothers than cousins.
Deron Neblett
Houston police officer Randy Carodine and Donald Davis were more like brothers than cousins.

Davis's success, say many of his colleagues, was owed to his ability to connect with juries; for some reason, they just seemed to like him. For that matter, so did the judges, who appointed him to many of the cases, and so did the prosecutors against whom Davis went head-to-head in the courtroom. Davis's appeal was certainly not due to any sort of larger-than-life Hollywood persona, as he was neither a handsome nor dashing man. The 43-year-old Davis was actually on the nerdy side. At six feet two inches and 195 pounds, he resembled a taller version of Steve Urkel, the gawky African-American character with the big glasses and annoyingly high-pitched voice in the now-defunct sitcom Family Matters.

Perhaps because of that facade, Davis was, for the most part, able to keep up the appearance that everything was fine. But by June, his life was unraveling -- as it had been for several months. Although Carodine had grown up in South Central Los Angeles and Davis in Grambling, Louisiana, the two men were close -- more like brothers than cousins -- and Carodine knew something was wrong. During the last year, says Carodine, Davis seemed to have grown disenchanted with the law.

"In my opinion," says Carodine, "Donald always took too much of a personal interest in his clients. I wouldn't say he became friends with them, but he went out of his way to help them. He'd pay for their schooling or loan them money. They could have followed him home and stolen his money, and he still probably would have represented them."

But recently Carodine had noticed a change. Davis began to question why he bothered busting his ass for people who didn't give a damn. It was a radical change of heart for an attorney who had spent most of his career defending the people society would just as soon ignore, or execute. To Davis, these people were as much symbols as defendants; they were reminders of the underprivileged folks who lived in Davis's native Grambling. And a long time ago, Davis made a pledge to himself that he would always be their guardian angel. He apparently never realized how large a toll it would take.

"He started talking more and more about how he felt jilted by his clients," says Carodine. "He complained about giving so much to people, and of people taking advantage of his generosity."

In retrospect, there were other warning signs as well. Carodine says that during the last two or three months before events finally reached a head, it became common for Davis to agree to come over to Carodine's house on the weekend, but then never arrive; he wouldn't even bother to call and say why. Carodine's wife also noted Davis's erratic behavior. So when Carodine learned that Davis had failed to appear in court, the officer confronted his cousin.

Davis insisted that all was well, and the cousins agreed to have lunch the next day. But that meal would never happen. The reality of Davis's circumstances belied the attorney's nonchalant attitude. In June the State Bar of Texas quietly notified Davis that the agency was suspending his law license for two years. For Davis, nothing could have been worse. They were taking away his life. So he beat them to the punch.

Because of its football team and the team's legendary head coach, Eddie Robinson, Grambling University is known as one of the preeminent black colleges in the country. Not as well-known is the fact that Grambling is also the name of the city in which the university is located. Just south of Interstate 20, between Shreveport and Monroe, Grambling is situated in northern Louisiana, smack-dab in the middle of the state's panhandle. It was there that Davis's mother and father raised him and his four sisters.

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