The Killer Inside Him

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In a packed courtroom, he admitted it again, sealing his fate. In fact, Davis was in a tremendous hurry to end his life. Shortly after his trial, he wrote a letter to Governor Romer, urging an immediate decision on clemency in his case rather than waiting for the automatic appeals process to run its course. "If you decide death," he asked, "can't we please get it done?"

His impatience probably had less to do with any pangs of remorse than with an old con's weariness at being locked up with himself. His early letters from death row exude a steady stream of self-pity and disgust, but despite his testimony, he was still quick to deny murdering Ginny May. Death was simpler than coming to terms with the devastation he'd caused.

Later, Davis would come to see his yearning for death as another kind of copout. For the first few years he was on death row, he wrote, he was "dry" but not yet sober--and heavily medicated at one point with Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug.

"He told me he wasn't drinking like an alcoholic, but he was still thinking like one," says Vicki Mandell-King, the federal public defender who worked closely with Davis on his last three years of appeals. "Then he began to wake up."

The turning point came in 1990, after the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed his sentence. That summer Davis dismissed his lawyer and directed his new one, Dennis Hartley, not to file any more appeals. Hartley argued vigorously with him, pointing out that there were several avenues still worth exploring, such as the issue of ineffective counsel at trial. Truman had presented only two witnesses during the penalty phase. Hartley believed that the jury should have heard more about various "mitigating factors"--including Davis's alcoholism, the possible mental effects of a bad car accident in the 1960s, his "passive-aggressive personality" and Fincham's supposedly "dominant" role in the homicide--before imposing the death penalty. (Truman assisted in this appeal, but the federal courts ruled that the veteran defense attorney had done the best that he could, given his client's refusal to cooperate with him.)

Davis relented and gave Hartley the green light, but only after a call from one of his daughters, who reportedly told him that he wouldn't see his grandchild unless he kept the appeals going. In the course of researching the appeals, Hartley was able to bring Davis back into contact with several estranged family members, including his first two wives and their children, and that gave him further impetus to live.

Of course, Ginny May didn't have the luxury of choosing to live, even for a few more moments; but the decision was surprisingly difficult for Davis. Death can seem a blessing, he noted in his clemency interview, compared to life in the solitary confines of a maximum-security prison: "To me, that's a worse sentence than the death penalty."

In 1993 Davis was moved into the state's new supermax, the Colorado State Penitentiary. Designed to hold unruly inmates in total lockdown 23 hours a day, CSP has also become the home of all five of the state's murderers slated for execution. Caged in an eighty-square-foot cell, with few privileges and no opportunity to breathe fresh air, Davis wasn't exactly living it up.

"Been over here one year today," he wrote in the fall of 1994. "Seems like ten. I've got a lot of years to go in this hole...Some days I wish I could lay down and die. I think that's what the prison wants us to do. They loved it in 1990 when I tried to get executed. You should have seen how nice they treated me back then. To hell with them."

After his federal appeals failed, he probably could have delayed his fate by making another run at the state courts, but the prospect of stretching out his stay in CSP was unthinkable. "I want out of this place either by walking or in a box," he declared in 1995. "Lately I've started to pace like the animals in a zoo. People are sent to this building for short-term punishment, not long-term housing. They break your spirit here so they can control you."

He added, as if an afterthought, "Hell, I've been broken long before I came here."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast