On Monday, in front of a packed courtroom, Keith Davis, Jr., who was shot in the face by members of the Baltimore Police Department just two months after the death of Freddie Gray, was sentenced to fifty years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. What the hell happened? And what happens next?
First off, on Keith’s innocence, why he was nearly killed by BPD for the crime of trying to run from a robbery in which he had no part, and how that led not to accountability for the officers involved, but rather to him getting framed for an unrelated murder, I’ve written extensively on the topic here — https://one-baltimore.org/2019/06/17/one-baltimore-7-keith-davis-jr/ — and here — https://one-baltimore.org/2019/07/22/one-baltimore-11-a-single-life/, including many links to other sources. If you have questions, please look over this information. All I’ll say further is that I wouldn’t be putting my reputation on the line for this man I don’t even know, nor would all the many other people involved, if this wasn’t such an obvious and gross miscarriage of justice.
If you can look at it all and come away thinking Keith IS guilty, then 1) tell me how, and 2) at least ask yourself this — was the process that brought him to this point fair and just? If you can say yes to that, then just stop reading now and don’t come back, honestly.
Long story short though, on July 26, 2019, the jury in Keith’s latest trial (his fourth for the same charge, astoundingly), which had not seen a great deal of the facts known to people who have been following the case, found Keith guilty of second-degree murder on the weight of testimony by BPD. It was a hard, hard day. But that’s far from the end of the story. Next came Keith’s sentencing hearing, at which the defense argued a number of motions for a new trial.
I attended both days of the hearing, on Friday, 2/28 and Monday, 3/2, and typed up my full notes (https://docs.google.com/document/d/15iY-b6k9j4D00Yb6t97t4v61mF9FHjkbsCtkCNNAKfM/edit?usp=sharing) if you wanna dig into the gory (sometimes literally) details, but it’s a lot. The question I faced in writing this week’s column was how to translate all of that into something digestible.
I’m going to focus on two things — Judge Sylvester B. Cox’s words as he led up to his sentencing pronouncement, and the events that took place afterwards.
First, Judge Cox. The reason I’m starting here is because I find his statements so remarkable. It seems crystal clear to me that he believed that something was gravely wrong, but also believed that he was duty-bound to act as he did. The following is taken from my transcription of my hand-written notes.
Judge Cox seemed very tired as he moved from ruling on the defense’s motions — all of which he denied — to the sentencing phase of the hearing. He mused about how many murder trials he’d tried in the last year, guessing the number might be 114. “They come so quickly these days,” he said. He said he listens to WEAA sometimes and hears about the murder rate, and noted that, in 1970, there were 42 murders in Baltimore City and far more people living here. There’s been a huge increase for many reasons, he said, maybe due to there being too many guns on this street.
“This case,” Judge Cox acknowledged, “is frankly a circumstantial evidence case.” However, he continued, no greater degree of circumstantial evidence is required than direct evidence. “The jury,” he said solemnly, “found it sufficient.”
Cox said that he started getting letters about the case in the fall, and had received a compendium of letters on Thursday, holding up a thick, spiral-bound paper packet. He mentioned the number of Keith’s trials, saying it was “too many trials,” and then said again, “but the jury found him guilty.”
Speaking now of Kelly and Keith Davis’s two young teenage sons, who had stood before him minutes before to plead for mercy for Keith, Judge Cox said that he rarely sees two young gentlemen come before the court in suits and ties and express themselves, “however slightly the court had to bend to hear them” (they were both soft-spoken). I wondered if their words would have meant less without the suits and ties.
Judge Cox’s next words burned themselves into my memory. He said, “I’ve been walking into this building since May 1984, and I’ve wondered to myself, as a human being, when does it get better. I’ve been sitting on this bench for 16 years now, and I hate to say it, but I think I’ve seen it all.” He then said that he’d rarely seen something like “Team Davis” (for the record, we call ourselves #TeamKeith), referring to the many supporters taking up the benches in the room, as well as those who couldn’t attend but who had written to him “…but again,” he said, “the jury has spoken.”
Cox then looked at Keith, sitting before him in a threadbare yellow outfit with the word “PRISONER” in big, black letters on the back. He said that it was rare to see a defendant looking like a teacher, “like a professor who could teach things to others.” I supposed he was responding to Keith’s tight haircut and his glasses, or maybe it was more the quiet but upright way he held himself. “But,” Cox said yet again, “the jury found him guilty.”
Judge Cox then sentenced Keith to 30 years for second-degree murder and 20 years for the gun crime, to be served subsequent to the first sentence, for a total of 50 years. The first five years would be without parole, although, Cox pointed out, that time has now nearly passed, since Keith was first jailed (days after his shooting by the police, but seven months before he would, to his great surprise, be charged with murder) in June 2015.
Y’all. I’m no courtroom junkie, but I’m pretty sure it’s unusual for a judge to feel the need to say, no fewer than four times in a few minutes, different variations on “this seems fucked up but the jury decided, so, whatchu gonna do.”
I felt numb, walking out of the courtroom. We had all expected this, but still. I looked for Kelly and saw people hugging her. I decided not to interrupt, I could speak with her later. As I walked into the daylight, down the broad steps in front of the building, I wiped tears from my eyes, noting the large black TV cameras pointed at me and the other people descending along with me. I wondered what they’d choose to show and what they wouldn’t.
I noticed a slim, blond woman in high heels and a long brown coat who was trying to get to Kelly, with others trying to talk her down or stand in her path. Next to her was a woman holding a large video camera with the Fox 45 logo emblazoned on the side. I joined in with those holding up their jackets to block the Fox camera, while Kelly spoke with someone from Channel 11 News (https://www.wbaltv.com/article/keith-davis-sentencing-judge-denies-new-trial/31191168). I didn’t know the background, but people who’ve been involved a long time were very clear that Kelly did NOT want to talk to this woman, and that was enough for me. The two Fox 45 peeps went across the street and tried to film from there, but after being blocked again, eventually gave up.
Then came a totally unexpected scene — from the doors of the Office of the Public Defender, which we could see across the way from where we stood on the north side of the courthouse, came running Keith’s lawyer, Deborah Levi, Director of Special Investigations for the Maryland OPD. She was smiling and waving as she rushed across the street in her heels. She came up to Kelly and explained that the Court of Special Appeals had just ruled that Kazadi DOES apply to all cases pending appeal (https://twitter.com/Tim_Prudente/status/1234913819501219840).
“What??” I asked aloud. “WHAT??? Oh my god!!” The Kazadi case had featured prominently in the defense’s motions for a new trial. See, Levi had asked to question the jurors about their understanding of the presumption of innocence during voir dire, the jury selection process, but had been denied. The Kazadi ruling, which came out in the fall, said that defense attorneys are due this right by law, but because it only applied prospectively, i.e. to cases which took place after the ruling came down, Judge Cox had denied the motion for a new trial to be granted on this basis, even though an appeal for Keith had already been filed. If the Court of Special Appeals had made its decision just an hour earlier, the entire proceeding that we had all just witnessed could’ve ended entirely differently.
Why was the ruling on Kazadi made only after Keith’s sentencing had ended, and why so very soon after? This I certainly don’t know. But the news clearly meant good things for Keith’s chances going forward. Kelly and the team standing with her were all jubilant for at least a few minutes. It was a very strange turn of events on a day which had been so bitter up until then.
So… what can we do about all this, aside from wait to see what the court system does next? What the hell can we do about the fact that the officers and prosecutors who did this to Keith, the ones who terrorized and harassed the family that I wrote about in The Raid (https://one-baltimore.org/2020/01/27/one-baltimore-34-the-raid-part-4/), and all the many other brutal, corrupt, and cruel “peace officers” in BPD are still out there stalking our streets every day?
I’ve talked at length about how I think that local police control is a crucial part of the answer (https://one-baltimore.org/2020/02/17/one-baltimore-37-regaining-control/). I’ve only become more convinced of that as I’ve tried to navigate Annapolis politics in figuring out how to help make it happen — the process is frustrating, arcane, and simultaneously interminable and yet over in a snap. That said, all respect to Maryland State Senator Jill P. Carter for submitting a bill for local control, SB1057 (http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/mgawebsite/Legislation/Details/sb1057). The bill is now waiting for a decision from the Senate Rules Committee about whether or not it will move forward to a regular hearing. Senator Bill Ferguson (http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/mgawebsite/Members/Details/ferguson) is the one to lobby, as the only Baltimore City rep on that committee. Carter and others are also working on a number of other bills that would make huge, necessary changes to our ability to reform BPD, including HB1221/SB1029 and SB972. I’d talk about them all, but my space is running short.
Of course, there are channels for change other than legislative that have been underway for a long time. Every month, the Citizens Policing Project holds a town hall on what’s happening with the Department of Justice’s Consent Decree requiring the Baltimore Police Department to undergo major reforms. BPD released a draft policing plan in January, to which residents submitted comments. Their second draft is now up (comment period through 3/18) — https://www.baltimorepolice.org/0cp1-draft-community-policing-plan — and on Wednesday, 3/11, the CPP will be reviewing it to see what consideration was given to residents’ feedback. https://www.facebook.com/events/614057389159216/?event_time_id=614057405825881
Yet another avenue is protest, and on Tuesday night, a dozen or so of us joined Kelly in disrupting a City Council President’s forum, for the purpose of calling out Delegate Nick Mosby for his silence and complicity in the injustice that his wife’s office is doing to Keith. I’ll talk more about this and about the Mosbys in an upcoming column.
Finally, there’s getting the word out. The moderator of the forum that we interrupted was Lou Fields, the host of the weekly BDX Live Talk Show, which airs Mondays, 1-3pm on WOLB 1010AM Baltimore. Lou was understandably frustrated with us, but when it became clear that we weren’t leaving, he asked to hear our story, and listened as Kelly laid out the whole five-year saga. Then he invited her to appear on his show. I just want to say a huge thank you to him for that — he’d laid out his own money for the venue for the forum, as he explained to me later, it was his reputation on the line and we’d just shut the thing down with no warning, and yet he was still gracious enough to offer Kelly space to tell Keith’s story on his platform. Listen for the interview this coming Monday, 3/16 at 2pm, on the radio at 1010AM or here: https://wolbbaltimore.com/
For now, please consider supporting the Davis family: https://fundrazr.com/FreeKeithDavisJr
Cultural Event of the Week: Eze Jackson is a beatboxing wizard who will transport you to another dimension of sound. I’ve only seen him live a few times, but damn… DAMN!!! So fucking spellbinding. This Wednesday, 3/11, at North Ave. Market, check out Eze at UNPLUG, hosted by The Bentley BRVND. The idea of this event is to focus on connection between the artist and the audience, and it is strongly encouraged that all attendees turn off their cell phones, an idea I adore.
Green Event of the Week: Access to transportation is more closely linked to better life outcomes than almost any other factor, and the fact that transit is so broken in Baltimore is a major part of what holds our city back. This Thursday, join Bikemore, The Real News Network, Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, and other transportation advocacy organizations, transit riders, and operators for a Council President Transportation Forum. For, uh, for the record, I am aware of no intentions to disrupt this one (no promises, but honestly).