The Private Trial of Donald Davis

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

Robert Morrow refuses to second-guess himself about what could or could not have been done to save Donald Davis. The best he can figure, he and everyone else began to lose Davis last February when a Harris County jury sentenced 24-year-old Jeffrey Demond Williams for the May 1999 fatal shooting of Troy Blando, a 39-year-old Houston police officer. Williams was represented by Davis, along with attorney David Cunningham. Morrow says Davis took the verdict hard. Around the same time, another of his former clients, Ponchai Wilkerson, was executed. Wilkerson was the first of his clients to get the needle.

Morrow doesn't believe it was the courthouse, or at least not the courthouse alone, that killed Donald Davis. Although Morrow didn't know it at the time -- few people did -- for the past several months, the State Bar of Texas had been hounding Davis to respond to a couple of grievances that had been filed against him. Instead, he ignored them.

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.
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.

"You have to deal with those things," says Morrow. "It was all so manageable. But he was very proud. And he was treated very well at the courthouse. He had earned his status in the community. And I don't think he wanted that in jeopardy."

According to state bar records obtained by the Houston Press under the Texas Open Records Act, at least two grievances were filed against Davis. One complaint was made by Houston attorney Timothy Ploch, who accused Davis of pocketing the $1,500 he paid Davis to have the criminal record of J. Marcus Laney expunged, which Ploch claims never happened. The other grievance was filed by John Wesley Myers of La Marque. Myers was not pleased with the HPD investigation into the murder of his daughter. He paid Davis $500 to initiate a private probe of the homicide, but charged that he never heard anything from the attorney after giving him the money. When contacted by the Press, Ploch declined to comment. Myers repeated the accusations made in his grievance to the state bar.

Davis kept to himself about the state bar investigation into the allegations against him, but family and friends began to notice slight changes in his demeanor. He didn't return his pages or e-mails. He told people he had stomach problems. There was a rumor he had stomach cancer. Compounding his problems, Davis kept signing on to capital murder cases. In the opinion of his cousin, it was impossible for Davis to refuse a capital case, even when his caseload was already suffocating him, because of his humble roots in Grambling.

"He remembered being very poor growing up," says Carodine. "And he wouldn't turn down a capital case, because he felt like, at one time, maybe he could have been in that position and not had the money for representation. He didn't like to see someone caught in that position. He felt that these people should not be victims of circumstance, of being poor and of not being able to afford a competent attorney."

In addition to the Williams case, Davis agreed to defend Gary Lee Hawkins, the son of celebrity death row inmate Gary Graham, in his own capital murder trial. This past June, Davis was also appointed to be co-counsel, along with attorney Anthony Osso, in the defense of Jeremiah Russell. Russell was accused of using a gun stolen from a Houston police officer to rob and fatally shoot 24-year-old Lu Hu, a Chinese woman attending Houston Community College. Hu's body was found outside her apartment in a pool of blood with her pants and panties down around her legs.

During the guilt-or-innocent phase of the trial, Davis mostly sat quietly at the defense table, with Osso doing the majority of the objecting and questioning of witnesses. Davis's role was to keep the excitable Russell under control. After the jury found Russell guilty, Davis vanished.

This past June 15, a Thursday, testimony began in the courtroom of state District Judge Joan Huffman to determine if Jeremiah Russell should be executed or sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Lu Hu. When court convened, Osso found himself alone at the defense table with Russell. Donald Davis was nowhere to be found.

"The night before we said good-bye," says Osso. "We talked about how we were going to split up the rest of the case. He was going to present [Russell's] family members. I was going to handle the expert witnesses. And that's the last time that I spoke to him."

Court personnel attempted to contact Davis with no success on Thursday, and the case proceeded without him. On Friday, when Davis again failed to show up for trial, Osso says, the court received information that Davis was suffering from stress and was seeing a doctor. Friday afternoon the jury returned with a verdict and sentenced Russell to life in prison. Osso was elated and knew that Davis would be, too.

"The verdict was in Saturday's paper, so I thought I would hear from him over the weekend even if he was bedridden," says Osso. "I thought he might call me, because we worked pretty hard on that case."

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