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 Turner case was the first in which Davis and Morrow worked together. They also teamed in the defense of young Peter Anthony Cantu. Although the results would not be what they wanted, in Morrow's opinion, Davis was at his best in the Cantu case, the one case that would affect Davis more personally than any other.

On the evening of June 24, 1993, a little before midnight, seven teenage males gathered along some railroad tracks near T.C. Jester and West 34th Street in northwest Houston to drink beer and initiate a new member into their gang, the Black and Whites. To gain acceptance into the gang, the prospective new member had to fight each of the other members for five to ten minutes.

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.
Donald Davis resembled the TV sitcom character Urkel, but he was all business in court.
Courtesy Linda Hanson
Donald Davis resembled the TV sitcom character Urkel, but he was all business in court.

At about the same time, 14-year-old Jennifer Ertman and 16-year-old Elizabeth Pena were walking home after a party when they decided to take a shortcut home beside the tracks. Along the way, the girls were confronted by the gang, including the boy police say was the self-appointed leader, 18-year-old Peter Cantu. Already revved up from the booze and the brawling, Cantu and the others were now ready for the girls. As Ertman and Pena walked past the boys, according to a statement given by Cantu to Houston police, he and four other gang members pulled the girls to the ground and brutally gang-raped them. The rapes were still going on when Cantu told one of his cohorts that they would have to kill their victims. Cantu and his friends dragged the girls into some nearby woods, known as Little Thicket, where they began strangling them.

"Joe had her from behind sitting on the ground strangling her with his hands when I kicked her in the face," reads Cantu's statement. "When she dropped to her back we checked for a pulse. I then went to check on Sean and Raul who were with the blond. They had already strangled her, and she was lying on her back. She was still moving slightly, and that's when I placed my left foot across her throat and placed some pressure on it for a few seconds. When I took my foot off, I believe it was Sean that placed his foot on her throat. We did this to make sure that they were dead. We didn't want to be identified."

But they were identified -- not by the girls, but by themselves. After leaving the scene, Cantu and two other gang members regrouped later that night at his house, where they happily bragged about their exploits to Cantu's older brother and sister-in-law. Cantu also showed them jewelry they had taken from the girls. At the urging of his wife, Cantu's older brother subsequently reported the incident to the police, and the five boys were arrested and charged with capital murder.

By the time the bodies were discovered, they were so badly decomposed that dental records were required for identification. Grisly crime scene and autopsy photographs too horrible to describe leave no doubt that Ertman and Pena suffered painful deaths. Details of the mindless killings shocked and outraged even jaded Houstonians long accustomed to big-city crime. Peter Cantu was the first member of the gang to be tried. He was represented by Davis and Morrow.

At the end of the trial, Cantu got what most people thought he had coming: a sentence to die by lethal injection. But the fact that Cantu ended up on death row, says Morrow, should not reflect poorly on Davis's courtroom performance. In fact, the attorney says, Davis was never better -- never more moving -- than during his closing arguments in the Cantu trial.

Davis began by acknowledging to the jurors that the crime scene photos shown to them by the prosecution were sickening, but were actually not the worst they could have seen. Davis also conceded that what happened to Ertman and Pena was "indefensible."

"Peter Cantu is not innocent," Davis told the jury. "I do not stand here in front of you to talk about an innocent man, because Peter Cantu committed a crime along with his friends that night."

However, Davis also maintained that police had embellished Cantu's statement. He said that testimony showed that another member of the gang -- not Cantu -- brought up the idea of killing the girls, and that while Cantu participated in the rapes, he did not help kill Ertman and Pena. "Mr. Cantu did not intentionally take the life of anyone," said Davis, "and that is what you must find beyond a reasonable doubt before you're warranted in finding a conviction for capital murder. Don't get confused. He is not the leader of a gang. These were a group of friends that got together and one night committed a horrible, horrible crime, because they raped these girls and there is no defense for that. Those girls had a right to take a shortcut home. I don't care if it's one o'clock in the morning or 12 o'clock at night, they had a right to do what they were doing, and they were wrong for stopping them. But he is not guilty of murder. The state has overcharged Peter Cantu in this case. We're asking you to find him not guilty of capital murder because there is no evidence that he intentionally took the life of Jennifer Ertman" -- the only death Cantu was charged with -- "or directed any of those boys to take her life."

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