Len Davis Trial: 1996

views updated

Len Davis Trial: 1996

Defendant: Len Davis
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Dwight Doskey
Chief Prosecutors: Constantine Georges, Michael McMahon
Judge: Ginger Berrigan
Place: New Orleans, Louisiana
Date of Trial: April 8April 24, 1996
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death

SIGNIFICANCE: This trial blew the lid off police corruption in one of America's major cities.

Even in a city as wearily accustomed to crooked cops as New Orleans, Len Davis stood out. In his six years on that city's police department (NOPD), he'd become known in the housing projects as "Robocop," on account of his highly individualistic style of law enforcement. The subject of more than 20 complaints, mostly for brutality and intimidation, he had once been suspended for hitting a woman on the head with his flashlight. Not that Davis worried overmuch about complaints: most had a way of just fizzling out as terrified witnesses suddenly developed amnesia or else became tongue-tied.

But Kim Groves, a 32-year-old mother of three, was made of tougher stuff, and when, on October 11, 1994, she saw Davis and his partner, Sammie Williams, pistol-whipping a young man named Nathan Norwood, she filed a complaint with the NOPD Internal Affairs Division. Just over 48 hours later, Groves' sense of civic duty was repaid by a bullet in the head, gunned down outside her house by a young man who made his getaway in a blue car.

When Davis was arrested and charged with having ordered the killing, it caused a sensation in New Orleans. The sweep had also netted a couple, of known drug dealers, Paul Hardy and Damon Causey, who were suspected of being the actual hitmen, but it was Officer Len Davis who took center stage when the trial opened before Judge Ginger Berrigan on April 8, 1996. Because Davis had used his official position to deny Kim Groves her civil rights, he was tried under federal law. If convicted he faced the death penalty.

It was soon clear that the prosecution, under the stewardship of Assistant U.S. Attorney Constantine Georges, had built its case primarily around the evidence of Sammie Williams, Davis' former partner. He testified that, at about 5:00 p.m. on October 13, 1994, he and Davis were stopped at a traffic light, when a car containing Groves and others pulled up alongside. According to Williams, Groves began mouthing the words, "That's them, that's them," whereupon Davis pointed back and yelled, "I see you too, I see you too."

Williams said this exchange had the effect of infuriating Davis, who reached for his pager saidthisand exchangegrowled, "I could get 'P' to do that whore and we can handle the '30.'" Williams understood this to mean that Davis would get his longtime associate, Paul Hardy, a drug dealer who "looked out for" Davis, to kill Groves. Then it would be up to Davis and Williams to respond to the homicideor "30" in police codeand dispose of any incriminating evidence.

That evening, continued Williams, Davis met Hardy and gave him details of Groves' appearance and address. He also asked Hardy if he had a gun and was told that he did.

At 10:50 p.m. that same night, Williams got a call from Davis, saying "signal 30 NAT." Williams explained to the jury that "NAT" was police code for "necessary action taken," and he assumed that Groves had been shot.

Undercover Tapes!

In the ordinary course of events, Williams' testimony would have been unsubstantiated, but here the prosecution had cast-iron corroborationunknown to Davis every word of these conversations had been caught on tape!

For 11 months FBI agents had been investigating allegations of widespread coke dealing in the NOPD, and it just so happened that they had a tap on Davis' phone. Besides the above conversations, the surveillance had also caught Davis gleefully confirming Groves' death to Hardy on the day after the murder, laughing, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, rock, rock-a-bye," an expression used by a drug dealer in the movie New Jack City just before shooting people. Davis could be heard adding that if Nathan Norwood persisted with his complaint, it would be "rock-a-bye, baby" for him, too.

Williams, who himself had been indicted on corruption charges, gave some insight into a police force awash with illegal drug money. On the day of Groves' murder, he and Davis had split $16,000 in cash. Asked to explain this transaction, Williams just shrugged. "[I thought] it would be more convenient for us to be partners, given the other things we were involved in."

Next on the witness stand was Steve Jackson who, in return for a deal with the U.S. government, had agreed to give evidence for the prosecution. He told the court of driving Hardy and Causey into the neighborhood where Kim Groves lived. All the while, according to Jackson, Hardy said, "He gots to do this for his nigger," but without specifying who "his nigger" was.

When they reached their destination, Jackson said, Hardy got out, leaving Jackson and Causey in the car. A short while later, Hardy came running back, jumped in, and told him to drive off fast, shouting, "I hit the bitch!" According to Jackson, as they sped away, Hardy threw the barrel of the gun into a canal, switched barrels, then gave Causey the gun to hide. The next day, according to Jackson, Hardy told him "he had to do this Lennie kept bothering him about doing this." Asked by counsel if he knew who "Lennie" was, Jackson replied, "Len Davis."

Ballistics expert James Churchman testified that a 9-mm barrel recovered from the canal over a year later was too corroded to match to the murder weapon, but he did confirm that it fitted a Beretta handgun found at Causey's house.

Defense Fights Back

Although Davis declined to testify on his own behalf, chief defense counsel Dwight Doskey fought hard for his client. So far as he was concerned, it was all a question of mistaken identity. Doskey threw out some heavy hints that Groves had actually been shot by longtime partner, Sylvester "Jimmy" Jones, with whom she shared a violent four-year relationship. Doskey even managed to produce a string of witnesses who described seeing someone close by at the time of the murder who strongly resembled Jones.

But the prosecution would have none of it. In their eyes Davis was "a street killer, a ruthless person." With Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael McMahon making an emotion-packed appeal to the jury not to forget Kim Groves' bravery: "What happened on that day to that poor woman, a citizen of the United States, should not have happened in this country. Maybe somewhere else; not in the United States. Because what the evidence showed, what we proved to you was the existence of a police death squad in New Orleans, Louisiana."

On April 24, Davis was convicted of murder. As was his right, he refused to participate in the penalty phase of his trial, which ended on May 1 with Judge Berrigan sentencing him to death. Hardy also received a death sentence. Causey received two concurrent life terms. On August 16, 1999, Davis and Hardy had their sentences overturned on appeal, and they were referred back to district court for resentencing. (This was still pending in 2001.)

The FBI sting that inadvertently sent Davis to death row also led to convictions for a half-dozen former NOPD officers on drug trafficking charges.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

"Can I Get a Witness." Gambit Weekly (July 28, 1998).

Gleik, Elizabeth. "The Crookedest Blue Line." Time (September 9, 1995).

Keegan, V. Paul. "The Thinnest Blue Line." New York Times (March 31, 1996).

The New Orleans Times-Picayune. See Groves, Kim, in the New Orleans Times-Picayune Index (April 8-November 7, 1996).