Lamont Davis isn't innocent, but that doesn't mean he's guilty

There are a few cases I covered as a courts reporter that will stick with me for the rest of my days. Mark Castillo methodically drowning his three young children in a hotel bathtub. Patrick Byers using a contraband cell phone to order the contract killing of a witness from a Baltimore jail cell. John Wagner and Lavelva Merritt stabbing to death a Hopkins researcher as he walked home along St. Paul Street in Charles Village, two days shy of his 24th birthday.

And then there is Lamont Davis. He was convicted on April 15, 2010, his 18th birthday, of attempted murder and handgun charges for recklessly shooting 5-year-old Raven Wyatt in the head nine months earlier. He was said to have been aiming at another teen, who was shot in the arm, during a South Baltimore street fight that began over a childish insult: A boy spat at a girl.

Like the others, Mr. Davis’ case stands out for its casual cruelty, but also the youth, lengthy criminal records and hardened world views of those involved. Mr. Davis had been arrested 15 times since his 10th birthday, and five of the juvenile witnesses called against him — including one nicknamed “Murder” — were either incarcerated, on probation or facing fresh charges.

It also stands out because of this: He may not be guilty — at least not of this shooting.

I was reminded of this when a colleague, reporter Justin Fenton, mentioned recently that Mr. Davis’ case had been taken up by Michele Nethercott, who runs an Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

According to a 2016 court filing, an investigator working for Ms. Nethercott found a witness who can offer “powerful exculpatory evidence as to [Mr. Davis] that is also highly incriminating to a third party.”

Ms. Nethercott asked the court for permission to file a “petition for writ of actual innocence” — seeking to overturn his conviction — under seal, to protect the witness’ identity; it was granted a year ago this month. She also asked that certain DNA tests be performed on material from a black baseball cap that the shooter allegedly wore and police had in evidence, but the hat has inexplicably gone missing, according to a filing from the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office. A post-conviction hearing has been set in the case for March 14.

Prior appeal efforts have failed, and I don’t know whether the hat matters or whether Ms. Nethercott has information that will cast doubt on the conviction — though I’m fairly confident I do, and that it’s already in the public record.

Lamont Davis’ case was a mess from the start, with multiple postponements because of DNA testing delays. And the trial itself was characterized by reluctant witnesses, conflicting testimony and individual stories that changed with every telling. It was also under a microscope, scrutinized by state officials who were trying to determine whether a relatively new and expensive community detention monitoring system in use by the Department of Juvenile Services was worth the $1 million price tag.

Mr. Davis had been wearing a GPS tracking device for 10 days when the shooting took place; it was a requirement of the home detention sentence he was serving at the time for robbing and assaulting a teen-age girl. It showed he was at home, or at least within 150 feet of home and away from the fight, when Raven was shot. That device was on trial as much as he was, and both of them got cheated.

The prosecution’s case relied on proving that the monitoring system didn’t work because it provided an alibi for Mr. Davis. But one of his defense attorneys, apparently confused, stipulated to the jury that Mr. Davis had “violated his community detention for more than a hundred times” — essentially admitting that the system couldn’t be relied upon. The mistaken claim was quickly agreed to by the prosecutor, who got a laugh from the jury, even as another defense attorney can be heard saying “that’s not true.”

I did an analysis of the tracking data at the time, and it showed Mr. Davis legitimately violated his detention eight times, a far cry from “more than a hundred.” But more importantly, it showed that the system knew when violations happened and for how long he was missing each time — even if it didn’t know where he was. That means when he was home, he was really home. And at 4:02 p.m. on July 2, 2009, when Raven and the teen boy were shot, he was home.

The record was never corrected, and the presiding judge, Gale Rasin, dismissed the blunder when it was pointed out to her: “It was hyperbole, it was rhetoric, it was exaggeration to make a point,” she said, concluding that the jury could have figured out the truth. Later that day, she sentenced Mr. Davis to life in prison plus 30 years.

Meanwhile, representatives from both the Department of Juvenile Services and the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, who also reviewed Mr. Davis' records, said they were confident that the data was accurate, and he was therefore home. But they were still unwilling to say that Mr. Davis was innocent.

Maybe it was the word “innocent” that tripped them up. Raven Wyatt was innocent. Lamont Davis had 15 arrests under his belt — for assault, drug dealing and handgun possession — and at least one conviction for beating up a girl. He dropped out of school in the 9th grade because he was running from police on juvenile warrants. He’s not sympathetic, even accounting for the outside evils that undoubtedly shaped him.

But not being innocent does not necessarily make him guilty. As he said in a rambling letter to the trial judge, which is now part of his case file: “I am what I am, but nothing near what they have presumed me to be.”

It appears that he was presumed to be a danger, and that if he didn’t do this crime, it was just a matter of time before he did something similar. So let him take the fall.

That may in some ways seem fair. But it’s not justice.

When he goes back to court this spring, Mr. Davis will be nearly 25. He’s no longer a child, and undoubtedly no more sympathetic. Whatever he’s got to present, though, should get a full review.

Justice should be blind to bias, not the evidence.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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