Accused of murder… Self defense? Harris County, TX Public Defender and TLC Faculty member Eric Davis fought for his client and won his freedom. The Jury freed his client IN LESS THAN 40 MINUTES.
Congratulations! Would mind giving me some background?
Our client is an African-American gentleman who was accused of killing a Caucasian man who had broken into his 18 wheeler truck. The State charged our client with murder – a first degree felony. After working with our client, his wife and several other TLC Grads; we found out a lot more than what was contained in police reports and 911 tapes. We discovered his story and argued self-defense and defense of others. Our client was a hard-working man who was just trying to go to work. He was a husband who just wanted to protect his wife. He was a man doing what a man was supposed to do. The jury ultimately acquitted our client after deliberating less than 40 minutes. And he left the courtroom a free man.
The case received a considerable amount of media attention due to the circumstances surrounding how he was charged. There was a situation in Houston a couple of years ago where a white man named Joe Horn shot two black men in the back who were breaking into his neighbor’s home. It was all over the newspapers and on every television station. Horn called 911 before shooting the men. And despite the admonition of the 911 caller not to go outside; Horn went outside and shot the men as they were running away from him. He left the phone off the hook while he was shooting the two men and the recording of the 911 call captured the sounds of the killing. People in the community were outraged that he shot these men in the back. Horn wasn’t arrested and was given the opportunity to testify before the grand jury. And people were outraged that a white man was still “no billed” by a grand jury even though his conduct did not appear to be protected by Texas’ self-defense statute. My client, an African-American, was not given the opportunity to testify in front of the grand jury. Actually, on the night this all happened, the police let him go and almost a year went by before a warrant was issued for his arrest. The District Attorney’s office reviewed the case, eventually took the case to the grand jury and got an indictment. Local activists got wind of it and they drew comparisons between his case and the previous case of Joe Horn. They zeroed in on the fact that my client was an African American and he was accused of killing a white person. They asserted in several media outlets that “you can never ever kill a white person under any circumstance in Harris County Texas,” so there was clearly heavy racial undertones to my client’s case. Activist and the media made race an issue.
After a lot of work discovering the story, we chose not to touch on the issue of race at all during the trial. Instead, we focused on the story of what happened to my client on this fateful night. The State argued that one of the men who broke into the truck was running away, and that our client allegedly caught him and beat him to death with the trucking tool. Somebody driving by as the incident was unfolding called 911. That one independent witness — who didn’t know anybody involved — and was merely driving by the incident — was the strength of the State’s case. He testified that he saw a man standing over another man who was on the ground, beating the man with a golf club. The trucking tool resembled a golf club. He told the 911 operator that it looked like the guy on the ground being beaten was dead. Their argument was that any justification for using self-defense for our client ended when the decedent started running away. That was where the battle line was drawn in the case.
When trying the case, I used what I learned and what I teach at TLC: we told a story with emotional context that was relatable to the jurors’ own life experiences. We touched on human themes. We showed the jury that the decedent came out of the truck attacking the client’s wife using a trucking tool that the decedent stole out of the truck. The client got between her and the decedent. A battle ensured. In closing argument, I told the jury a story about my parents. I told them that this summer my parent’s celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary and I learned that mother never changed a flat tire. I recounted a time when I was a kid and my mom was in school studying for her master’s degree. She would drive back and forth from Baton Rouge to New Orleans taking classes. One night my dad got a call that my mom’s tire was flat. I remembered him rushing… just straight hustling to get dressed and hustling out the house. He took me with him to change the flat tire and to make sure she was alright. I reminded our jury that there was a time when this is what a man did. I told them that my client wasn’t out there that night by himself — he was out there with his wife. The decedent came out attacking not only my client, but also his wife. When going after the man, he did what a husband was supposed to do. We appealed to a larger value that transcended race, which is that husbands protect their wives. People protect those they love. That was the crux of the argument. And we were so happy that the jury acquitted our client in less than 40 minutes.
That’s so great! What was it like to discovering the story with your client, who must have been terrified as he sat in jail awaiting his fate?
Our client was out on bond. But the stress is no less as real. My office staff and some lawyers who were Trial Lawyers College alums, Monique Sparks and Grant Shiner, helped with discovering of the story. We started off with a warm up just talking amongst ourselves about a time that we felt powerless. I wanted to get myself and the group into that space feeling how our client felt — just so powerless. He was out there and did not have control of the situation. His assailant had control of the situation. Also, in the criminal justice system there is an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness for so many who are accused. My client was out there that night, afraid for his wife, and he felt powerless. That night he did everything he could to protect himself and his wife. Now, he was going to court unable to afford the lawyer of his choosing. Trusting his life to a public defender. So we started getting ourselves in touch with that feeling, and then we worked with both our client and his wife. And we help them show us what happened out there that night. Our session discovering the story in this case was good and we were proud of the work that we did, because it helped us to feel and learn what happened. We were able to effectively argue for his freedom. If we avoided discovering the story, we wouldn’t have known what happened. And we would have been locked into arguing against the State on their playing field, instead the one we created. We needed our jury to be in tune with our client emotionally so they could understand, and hopefully empathize, with how he felt in that situation. I really appreciate the work we did with the other TLCers to help us discover the story. It definitely facilitated the work that we ultimately did before the jury.
What motivated you to take this case?
Well, I’m a public defender so I don’t have a lot of say in the cases assigned to me. I was maybe the third lawyer on the case. The client got cross-ways with his previous lawyer because the lawyer was not communicating with him. The day of the trial with his previous lawyer, the judge let the lawyer off the case and assigned me to the case. The judge had her court staff search the courthouse to find me so she could appoint me on the case. We immediately started working on the case. After some investigation, I attempted to get the State to dismiss the case. So I pointed out problems they had with their case. Instead of dismissing, they re-indicted and changed their theory! I was surprised that they would do that because there were things in their case that I thought they couldn’t fix, or wouldn’t fix. I hoped they would do the honorable thing, but they did not and pressed forward with the prosecution.
Did you know from the very beginning that you were going to use this angle in your defense?
Initially, no. After discovering the story, I used Trial Lawyers College methods in my jury selection. But I was aware that I was dealing with an issue in the law that some people would have a problem with: using deadly force to defend property. Many people have problems with people who use deadly force for the defense of property. How people feel about self-defense, how they feel about taking somebody’s life and using deadly force defending one’s self, was a real “danger point” for me in the case. People who are alright with using deadly force to protect property are certainly alright with using deadly force to protect oneself and even more so to protect their wife. Because of this, I geared my voir dire towards exploring how people felt about using deadly force to protect property. It allowed me to find people who could not be part of a decision where a man took somebody’s life to protect property – which is allowed in Texas. So when we began the testimony portion of the trial, all of the jurors were willing to allow for using deadly force for the protection of property. So when we started talking about him not just protecting property but protecting his wife, that was it, they were already there. This wasn’t about property. They had already agreed that it’s alright to use deadly force to protect property. But this wasn’t just property, his wife was out there, what is a husband supposed to do?
Do you think that people feel more strongly about protecting their wife than they do about protecting themselves with deadly force?
I think people feel stronger about protecting someone else, especially someone who they feel is weaker or dependent upon them. I think, to a degree, married women or women in a relationship feel honored when a husband or man is willing to do what he can to protect them and make them feel safe. The jury we had was all older people and we were in Texas where people have more traditional values. In terms of our argument, and in terms of our discussion with the jury, we talked about the man’s role to protect, help and serve his wife.
Is there anything that you believed before this trial that has changed since then?
Yes. I thought race was going to be a bigger issue in the case because of the way the media had presented it — comparing it to that other case with a white defendant a year ago. But after discovering the story, we opted to focus on a more universal, more human theme, and that was definitely the correct way to go. If we would have voir dired on race it could have side-tracked the issues. Initially, because my client is black, I thought we needed to have a lot of black people on the jury, but we ended up with a jury of 11 non-blacks and one black person. And still, they found for our client in less than 40 minutes. That made me believe that we can trust a jury. We won that case in voir dire by getting them to be open and honest. And by getting them to talk to us. And we were able to find out who those people were that had a problem with the law. Race was not an issue when we got to that point. We have shared human experiences and emotions that transcend race. When you can tap into those shared human experiences and emptions, then you’re onto something. Black men love their wives just like white men. Right?
How do you know when you’re ready for trial?
The judge says “Counsel, your jury”. [laughter] You know what I mean?
You don’t seem to have any fear at all. Do you have any fears when it comes to walking into the courtroom or defending your client?
Of course, I mean everybody is afraid. Everybody has fear. I think if I wasn’t nervous or if I didn’t have any fear, I wouldn’t be alive. Fear is a great survival instinct. I’m nervous every time I start a trial. I tell the jury that. I check in with how I feel and I share how I feel. If I’m really excited, I say I’m really excited. But I’m definitely nervous before every trial.
What are you nervous about?
I just feel nerves. Only lawyers have the responsibility of advocating for somebody’s life or somebody’s future in court. We are the only profession that is allowed to do that. It’s somewhat of a unique responsibility and it’s something that can make you a little bit nervous. This person is trusting in you, this person’s family is trusting in you, and they are looking to you for guidance and looking to you to stand between them and the State. They are looking to you to fight for them. What if you’re not up to the task? What if you miss something? I haven’t tried a case where I haven’t felt that way in 22 years of practice. But we got a job to do.
Is this the way you have always been or is this something that has changed over time?
Over time, things have developed. I started my career as a prosecutor and then I started doing civil work but I felt the desire to do more criminal cases. I was suing people in discrimination cases and I experienced a lot of success in that, so my business just took me that way. I ended up closing my law practice and took a job as an assistant public defender to help Harris County start a Public Defender’s Office. Now I’m the Trial Division Chief at the Public Defender’s Office of Harris County. I enjoy what I do. It’s a challenge. After attending the Trial Lawyers College, I acquired more skills and I felt freer to be more creative in court and try different things. I don’t feel as constrained as I used to. Having more freedom in the courtroom is the biggest gift I got from Trial Lawyers College.
I talk to a lot of criminal defense lawyers and there is a quote I hear often particularly from people with clients charged with murder, the quote is “It’s young man’s work”. Here you are, taking it on later in your career, do you feel that way about that area of law?
No, I don’t feel that way at all.
[laughter] You’re fearless!
No, I don’t feel that I’m fearless. I just don’t feel that it’s young man’s work. I think the older lawyers should do those kinds of cases because they have the experience to handle them and they handle them right.
About Eric Davis:
Eric J. Davis joined the Public Defender’s Office in September 2011. He has been a practicing attorney since 1994. Prior to joining the PDO, Mr. Davis was a criminal defense lawyer in private practice. He has tried over 100 cases to verdict as lead counsel, winning over 80 percent of them. In 2006, Mr. Davis received an “Unsung Hero Award” from the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. In that same year, he received the “Man of the Year Award” from the Houston Business and Professional Women’s Association, and helped free a man who had been wrongfully imprisoned for over 18 years for an alleged sexual assault of a child. Prior to representing criminal defendants, Mr. Davis served as a prosecutor for three years. His last year was spent in a child sexual abuse unit, where he focused exclusively on prosecuting child sexual abuse cases. In 2003, Mr. Davis received a commendation from the Texas State Legislature for his service as Special Counsel to the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Mr. Davis was lead counsel for the Commission to remove a judge from office who was mistreating citizens by wrongfully jailing them and addressing them in an abusive manner in court. Mr. Davis graduated from Tulane University Law School with honors in 1994. He graduated from Howard University magna cum laude in 1991 with a major in Political Science and a minor in Chemistry. Eric graduated from the Trial Lawyers College in 2005 and has served on their faculty team for over a decade.