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 emotionally charged trial was front-page news. It was the first trial in Harris County in which the judge, state District Judge Bill Harmon, allowed the victims' families to address the defendants following the verdict, and Davis was aware of the public's outrage over the girls' torturous deaths.

"He said he felt like he was the most hated man in Houston during the Cantu trial," says Carodine. "I think most attorneys realize that sort of thing comes with the territory. He couldn't understand why people hated him for providing this guy with what everyone is entitled to."

But it wasn't just the Cantu case. Davis took them all too personally.

Attorney Robert Morrow teamed with Davis on seven capital murder trials.
Deron Neblett
Attorney Robert Morrow teamed with Davis on seven capital murder trials.
Attorney Anthony Osso was baffled by Davis's disappearance during their last trial.
Deron Neblett
Attorney Anthony Osso was baffled by Davis's disappearance during their last trial.

Despite his good record of keeping his clients off death row, Donald Davis was different from many other high-profile attorneys who specialize in capital murder cases; he didn't mind getting his hands dirty in the trenches. Unlike attorneys who are rarely seen except when they take center stage for high-profile cases, Davis had a nuts-and-bolts practice that kept him at the courthouse every day. He worked as tirelessly on a simple drug-possession case as he did a headline-generating murder trial. But sometimes, says Morrow, Davis's concern for his clients was cause for concern among his friends.

Davis, says Morrow, was a man of few affectations. He didn't spend a lot of money on clothes or cars. In fact, he didn't learn to drive until after he moved to Houston and Morrow taught him. After that, he never bought anything other than a Mercury Cougar. He indulged himself in stereo and computer equipment. Otherwise, he'd just as soon give his money away.

"For a while, we joked he had an adopted defendant of the month," says Morrow, laughing. "He'd hire on to defend some kid, and he'd try to get him straightened out. He'd take the kid under his wing, give him money, find him a job and find him a place to live -- sometimes with him. He did that to the extent that it was scary to me."

Carodine agrees. In fact, in 1986, when Carodine still was living in Los Angeles, he decided to get married and asked Davis to be his best man. Davis agreed but canceled at the last minute.

"He called me and said he was representing a young man who had no place to stay, so he was staying at Donald's house," says Carodine, shaking his head. "And he missed my wedding. That's the kind of person he was."

The slight, however, did not damage Davis's relationship with his cousin. When Carodine and his family moved to Houston in 1994, he and Davis grew even closer. A few years earlier Carodine had injured his back while working as a deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office. When he was offered early retirement, he jumped at it and relocated to Houston, where he landed a job with HPD.

Carodine's move to Houston gave Davis a life outside the courthouse. He and Carodine talked on the phone daily, and the attorney spent many weekends and most holidays with the officer and his family -- either in Houston or back in Grambling.

Carodine admits his cousin could be a quirky man. For example, he ordered the same dish at every restaurant he went to. A car trip with Davis behind the wheel was also an experience. "When he drove to work, it was always in the same lane," says Carodine. "We'd drive to Grambling sometimes. He would drive in the same lanes. And he always stopped at the Luby's in Lufkin, the halfway point. Drive in the same lane all the way there. It would drive me crazy. He always set the cruise control three miles over the speed limit. And I'd tell him it was time to get over for an exit. And he'd say, "What do you mean, it's time? I don't get over until I pass this street.' If they had ever closed down one lane of the freeway, he probably couldn't have found his way home."

As for a romantic life, there were, says Carodine, a couple of women he dated occasionally, but none seriously. Nor did he hunt or fish. Outside the legal profession, "family meant everything to him," says Carodine.

Morrow agrees. In fact, he was happy when Carodine moved to Houston and gave Davis some sort of life away from his work. For try as he might, says Morrow, there was just no getting close to Davis away from the practice.

"I remember he used to say not to call him at home if I had a problem with a case," says Morrow, who is married to an attorney. "You could call him if you had a computer problem -- he didn't mind talking about that -- but don't call him about a case. But this is a pretty hard business, and it's even harder when you're by yourself."

Yet even with Carodine and his family available to lend support, Davis still couldn't reach out when he most needed to.

"He just wouldn't ask for anything," says Morrow. "You could only get so close to him."

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