The Private Trial of Donald Davis

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

"It is Mayberry RFD," says Carodine, with a laugh. Or at least, he says, it was when he was there. Despite his Southern California upbringing, Carodine always looked forward to each summer when he would spend a month, sometimes two, with Davis and his family. Although he jokes about Grambling, Carodine has fond memories of those hot and humid Louisiana summers with his country cousin, who was one year older than Carodine.

"Donald had BB guns," remembers Carodine, smiling. "We'd visit our grandparents and walk along the train tracks. We'd fill a jug full of water, walk through the woods all day long and come back just before dark." Carodine doesn't recall Davis having any special interests in those worry-free days. He certainly didn't mention anything about wanting to be a lawyer. Yet, according to one old friend from Grambling, Davis was always near the top of his class.

"You've heard the saying it takes a whole village to raise a child?" asks Monroe Yearby, a childhood friend who now lives in Houston. "Well, that's the kind of community we came from." What's more, says Yearby, it was well known among the villagers that Davis was something of a golden child.

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.

When Davis was 16, his father, who had worked as a custodian at Grambling University, died. Davis set his mind to providing for his mother and sisters. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He then went on to law school at Ohio State University. It was an accomplishment shared by not only his family, says Yearby, but the rest of the community. Just before Davis set off for Ohio State, Yearby says, the community gave Davis a going-away party. During the event, the president of Grambling University presented Davis with a legal briefcase containing a first-class ticket to Columbus. Davis wasn't representing just his family as he made his way into the world, he was representing Grambling.

"We knew he was aspiring to be somebody," says Yearby, "and the whole community was behind him."

Davis appreciated that support and tried to return the favor. After graduating from law school, he began subsidizing the income of his mother and sister. If someone in the community needed help, says Yearby, Davis often could be counted upon for it. He even once picked up the tab for one of his high school class reunions when there wasn't enough money to pay the bill.

While Davis was appreciative of the encouragement he received from the people of Grambling, he had absolutely no desire to return to Louisiana, aside from obligatory visits to his immediate family, according to his cousin. Houston, says Carodine, was an ideal location for Davis because it let him deal with his hometown on his own terms: It was close enough to Grambling to allow Davis to visit his family when he wanted to, but far enough away to keep his friends at arm's length.

"He was glad to get away from the country life," says Carodine. He was also ready for the big time.

In 1982, after graduating from Ohio State, Davis headed to Houston, where he studied for and passed the Texas bar exam and then took a job as a prosecutor with the Harris County district attorney's office. After five years of sending people to jail, Davis opened his own law office. His practice consisted primarily of capital murder and drug-related cases. He was good and quickly earned a reputation among judges -- judges weary of having capital murder convictions challenged on the grounds that a defendant's attorney did not provide adequate representation -- as an attorney they could appoint and be assured that he would provide a solid defense.

"He got the hardest cases, and he dealt with the most difficult defendants," says attorney Robert Morrow, who was co-counsel with Davis on at least seven capital cases. "His trial skills were highly regarded."

What he liked best about working with Davis, says Morrow, was his sense of trial strategy.

"He related to juries well," says Morrow. "Also, I tend to go off chasing new theories, but Donald would always keep you grounded, making sure you didn't go off too far into the ozone, making sure that you kept thinking about the jury and the client."

Many of Morrow's colleagues agree. In 1994 the Houston Chronicle polled Harris County judges and prosecutors about whom they would want to defend them if they were accused of a felony. Davis placed a formidable 11th on the list, trailing such local legends as Dick DeGuerin, Mike Ramsey, Mike DeGeurin, Rusty Hardin and Richard "Racehorse" Haynes.

Included on the list of Davis's former clients are Gary Lee Hawkins, the son of the recently executed Gary Graham, who has yet to stand trial; Darren McAfee, who received a life sentence for the death of his 18-month-old son, whom he beat with his fists and then strapped to an ironing board; Farley Matchett, who was sentenced to death for a drug-related fatal stabbing; Andre Sloan, who got a life sentence for a triple murder in connection with a cocaine rip-off; Frederick Patrick McWilliams, who was sentenced to death for killing a man during a robbery spree; Jeffrey Demond Williams, who was sentenced to die earlier this year for the slaying of Houston police officer Troy Blando; and Frederick Dale Turner, a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who got a life sentence after a deadly shooting spree in 1988.

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