Sunday, March 23, 2008

Live by the Sword, Die by the Shank

by Donna Pendergast

A final chapter was written in an upstate New York prison last month. Larry Davis, 41, was murdered in the yard of the Shawangunk Correctional Facility when inmate Luis Rosado stabbed him repeatedly with a nine-inch homemade metal shank. It was an ironic ending to a violent and notorious life.

Feared On the Streets

Davis, the youngest of fifteen children, was known on the street as a violent individual with a nasty temper. He terrorized the Bronx neighborhood where he grew up. No stranger to guns, drugs, and violence, Davis was feared by most everyone in the neighborhood and had a long record of arrests and convictions by the time he was 20 years old. Suspected in the execution-style murders of four Bronx drug dealers—as well as the murder of a drug dealer in Manhattan, and the unrelated murder of another Bronx drug dealer--the New York police department attempted to effect an arrest of Davis on a fateful day in November of 1986.

Holed up in a Bronx apartment and armed with a 16-gauge sawed off shotgun and a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, Davis fired four shotgun blasts and nine pistol shots, wounding six New York City police officers, two critically, during the attempted arrest.

Fortunately, Bronx-Lebanon hospital was across the street and all of the wounded officers were rushed there after the shootings and survived.

Leaving behind a .32 caliber revolver, which would later be linked to the Manhattan drug killing, and another .45 caliber weapon, which would be tied by ballistics to the four dead Bronx drug dealers, Davis carried a shotgun as he escaped through a window and past police troops.

After the shootings, the once-feared Davis became a folk hero to some in the neighborhood. His newfound claim to fame: wounding the six officers as well as eluding capture for 17 days during a massive manhunt. He was seen by some as a symbol of black resistance against white police intimidation in the black community.

He was apprehended on the fifth of December in 1986, when police received a tip that Davis was seen entering the Bronx housing project where his sister lived. After an efficient and uneventful arrest, neighborhood residents were seen and heard chanting LAR-RY! LAR-RY! as Davis was taken from the building.

The Courtroom Chronicles

The courtroom saga surrounding the trials against Davis was nothing short of astonishing and bizarre. In March of 1988, after a nine-day jury deliberation, Davis was acquitted of the murders of the four Bronx drug dealers despite overwhelming evidence. This acquittal apparently was based on unsubstantiated assertions by radical defense attorneys
William Kunstler and Lynne Stewart that Davis had been framed by authorities.

The jury selection for the Bronx shootout with police officers began in April of 1988. Davis was charged with nine counts of Attempted Murder and eight counts of Weapons Possession. With William Kuntsler again representing Davis, a mistrial was declared during the lengthy jury selection in May 1988. The prosecution concurred in Kuntsler's motion for a mistrial with both sides leveling charges of racist tactics in the selection of the jurors. A second mistrial occurred in June of 1988, after a dispute over the removal of the only white juror. Both sides agreed to this mistrial, fearing that the lengthy jury selection had tainted all of the jurors.

The retrial for the police shootings finally began in October 1988. Attorney Kunstler argued self defense by Davis. On November 20, 1988, after five days of jury deliberations, Davis was acquitted of the Attempted Murder charges against all police officers to the outrage of the police and most members of the community. He was convicted of six of the eight counts of Weapons Possession. Later juror interviews revealed that the jurors had believed the defense's unsupported assertions that Davis was an "innocent young kid" who got recruited by a few corrupt police officers who later wanted to silence him and that the shootings were Davis's only way out.

In a later trial, Davis was once again acquitted, this time for the murder of the Manhattan drug dealer Victor LaGombra. The not-guilty verdict came despite ballistic evidence matching the .32 caliber revolver left behind during the police shootings to the .32 caliber weapon used to shoot LaGombra.

In 1991, Davis was found guilty in the unrelated murder case of the other Bronx drug dealer, Raymond Vizcaino, whom Davis shot through a door. Davis was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Having already been sentenced to 5 to 15 years on the weapons possession charges, this consecutive sentence ensured that Davis wouldn't be eligible for parole until 2016. Defiant to the end, Davis repeatedly told the sentencing judge, "I ain't afraid of you," until the judge expelled Davis from the courtroom, continuing the sentencing without the defendant's presence.

Davis's prison stay was as tumultuous as his out-of-prison lifestyle. He racked up multiple disciplinary citations for assaulting inmates, assaulting corrections staff, fighting, and other threatening behavior. It was behavior that would continue to the end.

The Rest of the Story

And now as Paul Harvey would say . . . "for the rest of the story," the side that very few people know:

Another police officer was taken down by Larry Davis in that notorious incident. But he wasn't taken down by a bullet, and he certainly wouldn't stay down for long.

could be written about Vernon Geberth, former New York City Police Commander who now lectures around the country teaching his classes on Practical Homicide Investigation, Advanced Homicide Investigation, and Sexual Homicide Investigation.

This blog would be pages and pages long if I attempted in any way to explain who Vernon is and what he has accomplished but if you
link to his Web site it will give you a flavor. Suffice to say I have learned much from the master whose motto is "We work for God" and who refers to his devotees as disciples. His textbook Practical Homicide Investigation is widely regarded by investigators as the "bible" of homicide investigation.

I met Vern through work over ten years ago and have remained fast friends with him ever since. I always knew that he left the New York Police Department over "political reasons." He never told me what they were. I never asked. I recently learned what those political reasons in the wake of Davis's killing.

As Vern said after Davis's murder:

This man was a vicious wanton killer responsible for the deaths of six individuals (four in one incident) whom he would kill for their crack and cash. When we finally identified him as our murder suspect he should have been assigned to our Bronx Homicide Fugitive Unit. However, our illustrious Chief wouldn't allow that because he felt quote "I don't believe in elitists let the local detective squad handle this." And, so every time that Larry Davis was located we had to scramble a team to apprehend him. THAT'S how people get hurt. I tried to talk common sense to the arrogant Chief but he wouldn't listen. So on that fateful night when detectives scrambled to the Fulton Avenue apartment in the Bronx where Davis was hiding we almost lost six of New York's finest to an armed thug. After the shooting Davis was made into some sort of ghetto hero and the whole case took on racial overtones as the department put together an impossible but politically correct apprehension plan which was designed to protect Larry Davis and made it extremely difficult to capture him. That was when I committed commander-cide. I ordered 38 Black and Hispanic undercover officers to infiltrate the building that he was presently hiding in, which was in direct violation of the Chief of the Department's apprehension plan and Larry Davis was captured without incident. Needless to say, I would have to retire after this event since I had challenged the beast by taking independent and effective action which provoked the high command. BUT, it was worth it in the long end. I retired with my back straight and my head high with the respect of my troops."

Larry Davis left his back uncovered last month but your back is still straight, Vern. I've learned a lot from you about murder but now you've taught me the meaning of "STAND UP GUY" as well. As always, THANKS from a disciple!

Statements made in this post are my own and not intended to reflect the views, opinions, or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.


Jan C said...

I can only say that justice was finally done. But it was street justice. Why wasn't justice meted out by our courts? Are juries so jaded and biased as to be unable to reach a reasonable decision? I know this can't be an anomoly, something we all shake our heads at with disbelief. This happens every day. God be with our police officers and prosecutors for they need all the help they can get.

Donna Pendergast said...

Thanks for the post. It is amazing what a jury can justify sometimes. As prosecutors we have a saying "you never know with a jury". Thanks for the prayer as well

Kathryn Casey said...

Great post, Donna. Really interesting case. I never try to guess what a jury will do either. I talked with Robert Hirshhorn, the Texas jury consultant, when I was working on a book on the Celeste Beard case. He told me that one way to gauge how a community views a case is if they refer to it by the name of the accused or the name of the victim. If it's the name of the accused, a jury is more likely to find the person guilty. Don't know if it's true, but I thought that was kind of interesting.

Diane said...

William Kuntsler was a brilliant attorney. Sometimes he fought in the courtroom alongside those who were the victim of racial injustice, sometimes he fought on the side of the devil. But whatever side he was on, he was good at persuading the jury he was right.
I got to know him during a trial in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the late 60's, early 70's. He was a complex and engaging man.

Anonymous said...

I always have been a firm believer that everything comes around. Even if it isn't the way we would like for it to happen (the justice system) sometimes it turns out a more fitting punishment.