Two months ago, Robert Davis was getting ready to set up chairs for Bible study when he received some life-altering news: Within hours, he’d be walking out of Coffeewood Correctional Center, a free man for the first time in nearly 13 years.
Davis, 31, stepped out of prison December 21 to face television cameras, probably as surreal an experience as his last night of freedom in February 2003, when he was surrounded by police, slammed to the ground and handcuffed.
He was 18 years old then, a senior at Western Albemarle High and by his own admission, “naive.”
He didn’t know that he didn’t have to talk to police without a lawyer about a horrific double murder that had happened a few days earlier in his Crozet neighborhood. He didn’t know that police can lie to suspects to obtain a confession. And he didn’t know that after hours of a middle-of-the-night interrogation when he just wanted to sleep, if he told the officer what the cop wanted to hear, he wouldn’t be able to straighten things out in the morning.
Davis wasn’t familiar with the term “false confession” in 2003, and he didn’t realize he would become the face of the phenomenon to which juveniles and the exhausted are particularly susceptible. Nor could he have guessed that his story would be the subject of a national television show that aired on “Dateline NBC” February 14.
Robert Davis has learned a lot since 2003.
Murder on Cling Lane
Snow was on the ground the morning of February 19, 2003, when the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department got the call of a blaze in Crozet Crossing, a subdivision of entry-level homes.
At 6047 Cling Ln., once the fire was out, responders discovered a sinister scene: The body of Nola Charles, 41, known as Ann to her family and friends, in a bunk bed upstairs, with her arms duct-taped behind her. It took Albemarle police forensics technician Larry Claytor a while to notice the charred handle of a knife in her back.
Another shock awaited in the smoldering house. In Charles’ bedroom, the body of her 3-year-old son, William Thomas Charles, was found under debris. He’d died of carbon monoxide poisoning from smoke inhalation.
Almost immediately, police focused on a couple of neighborhood teens: Rocky Fugett, 19, a senior at Western Albemarle, and his sister Jessica, 15, a freshman. During interrogation, the two started throwing out names of other students to deflect the blame, both later told a reporter. One of those names was Robert Davis.
In a 2011 interview at Sussex II State Prison, Rocky Fugett admitted that he’d picked on Davis, and said he never dreamed Davis would confess to being there the night Charles was killed.
When the innocent confess
In the world of television crime, wrongful convictions are a hot topic, as evidenced by the radio podcast “Serial” and Netflix’s “Making a Murderer.”
An expert in false confession who appeared in the “Dateline” episode as well as in “Making a Murderer,” Northwestern law school’s Laura Nirider, who is the director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, has been aware of Davis’ case for years, and sent a 64-page report supporting his petition for clemency in 2012. She has called his interrogation “one of the most coercive confessions I’ve seen.”
It was after midnight when Davis was arrested at gunpoint, and almost 2am when the interrogation by Albemarle Police Detective Randy Snead began.
Snead had been the resource officer at Ivy Creek, the special ed school Davis had attended, and Davis says he trusted him.
Davis denied he had anything to do with the Charles murders dozens of times, according to the video of his six-hour interview. He offered to take a polygraph to prove he was telling the truth multiple times. And he told police if they were going to arrest him, to go ahead and do it so he could go to sleep.
Police widely use the Reid Technique of interviewing and interrogation, which says if a suspect asks to take a lie detector test, that should be taken as a sign of innocence, according to Nirider. That alone should have been a red flag to investigators, she says, but there were other details that made Davis’ interrogation a textbook case of false confession.
She points out how police fed him the details of the crime. Snead lied and told Davis police had evidence he was at the crime scene. He threatened Davis with the “ultimate punishment,” and said Davis’ mother could go to jail if he didn’t tell the truth. Finally, at nearly 7am, Davis said, “What can I say I did to get me out of this?”
“The young and those with mental limitations are most vulnerable to making false confessions,” says Nirider.
She notes a recent study that shows the sleep-deprived are way more likely to falsely confess to a crime. Exhaustion “absolutely plays a role,” she says. “There is a correlation.”
UVA law professor Brandon Garrett has examined many cases of false confession, and points out the interviews in those cases lasted over three hours. If someone is exhausted, he says, he thinks if he just goes along with the interrogation, he can clear it up later.
Today, Davis says the overriding emotion during that interview was fear. “I was scared shitless,” he says.
With Davis’ confession and the testimony of the Fugetts putting him at the crime scene, his attorney, Steve Rosenfield, says it was a “grave risk” to go to trial. He feared a jury would ask the question most people ask—why would you confess to a crime you didn’t commit?—and give Davis a life sentence.
When the commonwealth offered a deal, Rosenfield advised Davis to enter an Alford plea, in which he maintains his innocence but acknowledges the prosecution has enough evidence to convict him, and take a 23-year prison sentence.
Davis says it’s hard to recall a lot about entering that plea because he was on medication for anxiety and depression. Mainly, he thought, “At least I get to go home eventually.”
“I told Robert one day the Fugett kids might tell the truth,” says Rosenfield. “It took a long time—with Jessica especially.” She recanted her allegations about Davis in 2012.
Two years after Davis was convicted in 2004, Rosenfield received a letter from Rocky Fugett that said he had some information that would be helpful to Davis. Fugett signed an affidavit saying Davis had nothing to do with the slayings, and in 2012, Rosenfield sent a petition for clemency to then-governor Bob McDonnell.
There it lingered until McDonnell’s last day in office, when he denied the petition. According to Rosenfield, McDonnell’s administration conducted no investigation of the petition’s claims.
That was a particularly bleak time for Davis. “It was crushing having to wait so long and even more crushing when Bob McDonnell denied it without doing any investigation,” he says.
The importance of a good lawyer
When Davis walked out of Coffeewood the day Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a conditional pardon, he pointed to Rosenfield and said, “If it weren’t for that man there fighting for me, I wouldn’t be out right now.”
He’s probably right. Rosenfield submitted six volumes of documents supporting the clemency petition. “There wouldn’t be a realistic mechanism if a prisoner tried to do that,” he says.
Rosenfield was Davis’ court-appointed lawyer in 2003, but since Davis took the Alford plea in 2004, he’s been Davis’ pro bono lawyer. He estimates he’s spent between 1,500 and 2,000 hours working on the case, legal expertise worth about $600,000. And that doesn’t include the couple of thousand dollars he’s spent out of pocket.
“I’m glad he’s out,” says the attorney. “It’s a lot less work.”
Over the years, his professional relationship with Davis has blended into a friendship, says Rosenfield, and now the two talk every day.
Thirteen years ago, Rosenfield says he described Davis as “chronologically 18 years old, emotionally 14 years old. Today he’s very mature. Obviously he’s a grown man.”
In the two months since Davis has been out of prison, where he has spent his entire adult life, Rosenfield says, “He’s starting to feel a little more relaxed and confident. That’s in stark contrast to the first days when he was anxious, jittery and worried.”
Says Rosenfield, “People ought to know how difficult it is when you walk out that door with no job, no money, no clothes and no driver’s license.” He gave Davis a 2004 Toyota Corolla.
Davis’ parole officer is more like a social worker, helping him get set up in his new life, according to Rosenfield. She took him to the Department of Motor Vehicles for an emergency ID before he got his driver’s license, to Social Services for emergency food stamps, to The Haven and to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. She helped him navigate how to get medical services.
An anonymous donor paid for two months rent on his apartment, and a lot of his clothes have been gifts or come from Goodwill. Friends and family have helped him furnish his tiny apartment in Charlottesville. Rosenfield gave him a large print of swans on a lake.
“Most lawyers go their entire career without having a case like this,” Rosenfield says. “It’s really fulfilling as a lawyer to navigate the system for a favorable result.”
As part of Davis’ conditional pardon, he’s on parole for three years and has to wear an ankle bracelet with GPS. He has an 11pm curfew and has to get permission to travel to his mother’s residence in Crimora. Rosenfield says the conditions are nothing exceptional, and notes that no governor has given a full pardon in a case in which the defendant pleaded guilty and made a false confession since Gerald Baliles was in office in 1989.
Davis joins a dauntingly exclusive club of Virginians who have received pardons for convictions based on false confessions.
“In the past people who have falsely confessed in Virginia, even in DNA cases, faced great difficulties obtaining clemency,” says UVA law’s Garrett. “It took Earl Washington almost a decade after DNA testing cleared him to finally obtain full clemency.”
“Ultimately we’ll ask the governor to convert the conditional pardon to an absolute pardon,” says Rosenfield. An absolute pardon would completely expunge the conviction from Davis’ criminal record.
Back in the community
Rosenfield says he’s been amazed by the support Davis has received. “The community has been outstanding,” he says.
Shortly after he was released, Davis was on the Downtown Mall and saw a woman reading a C-VILLE Weekly article about him. She stood up and welcomed him back. A street musician recognized him and started playing “Folsom Prison Blues,” laughs Davis.
“I’ve gotten lots of love from strangers,” he says. “People I don’t even know are coming up and hugging me, and saying it’s great I’m home.”
His brother, musician Lester Seal, organized the February 20 “Welcome home” fundraiser for Davis with local musicians such as John D’earth and Travis Elliott on the bill.
“It’s surreal,” says Davis. “Mostly everyone has been glad to see me. I’ve only had one negative reaction.”
As much as Davis is feeling the love, there are those who are not convinced of his innocence. Former Albemarle commonwealth’s attorney Jim Camblos, who prosecuted Davis and the Fugetts, is one of them.
McAuliffe’s pardon is “purely political,” says Camblos. When Republican McDonnell’s administration changed with a “very liberal” governor and attorney general, “it went through,” he says.
With Davis’ confession and the statements from the Fugetts, “It was clear to us all three were involved,” says Camblos. And he’s suspicious of the Fugetts’ recanting their original statements naming Davis. “They were given every opportunity to tell who was and wasn’t involved. All three were consistent in who was there and who wasn’t. These people didn’t have time to get together and make up a story.”
Camblos also defends the investigators involved in the case. (Snead, who no longer works for Albemarle police, did not respond to a Facebook message from C-VILLE.) “I’ve heard from a number of people who are disgusted by the whole thing,” says Camblos.
Davis, says Camblos, “is guilty. He should be in prison but he’s not.”
Adds the former prosecutor, “I hope he does well with the rest of his life.”
The rest of his life
Even a month after his release, Davis says, “I can’t stop smiling.”
He’s remarkably positive after spending nearly 13 years of his life in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit. “You can’t be bitter about stuff like that,” he says. “Being bitter leads to health problems.”
The time incarcerated did have its effects. “I do have trust issues with authority figures,” he says. “I get weirded out when I see cops behind me. And I dislike the way the interrogation happened. I haven’t watched it. I don’t want to relive it.”
During his time in prison, Davis earned his high school diploma and a certification in desktop publishing. He had a couple of jobs, including working on the prison paint crew and as a kitchen stockroom worker.
He started reading a lot—psychology, poetry, fantasy, crime. “I’m all over the place,” he says. That habit has continued, and recently he was reading one of John Ringo’s Paladin of Shadows books.
Another habit left from prison is frequent handwashing. “A lot of guys there were dirty,” explains Davis. “They didn’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom.”
With help from family and friends, he has several job possibilities, and currently is working part time at a nearby deli.
His mother says that Nola Charles and her son were not the only victims in the 2003 crime. “It’s made my family a victim too,” says Sandy Seal. “I’m a victim because I didn’t have my son for 13 years. Lester grew up without his brother. Robert is a victim because he lost his freedom for something he didn’t do.”
Seal says her health was impacted by Davis’ imprisonment, and that she lost her job when he was accused of the horrific crime.
“People read the story about Robert without understanding the impact on his brother, his mother and other people who care about him,” says Rosenfield.
His mother doesn’t understand why Davis is on parole, has to wear an ankle bracelet and has to get permission to come see her. “They proved he was innocent and they still treat him like he’s guilty,” she says. “That hurts.”
Davis, however, seems less perturbed, and is glad to be in his own one-bedroom apartment, to be able to walk on the Downtown Mall and have coffee at Mudhouse. He can take a shower when he wants, or “walk around without shower shoes or go barefoot,” he says. “I can step outside without asking permission. It’s the simple things in life you find you miss the most.”
Another pleasure of being on the outside: “Being able to listen to an uncensored CD is awesome,” he says. He also enjoys being able to see live music—although his 11pm curfew means he can’t stay until the end if he wants to see his brother perform.
The world has changed since Davis was last a free man. “Everybody walks around like this,” he says, bending his head and mimicking texting on a cellphone. “Nobody talks.”
Davis admits it feels a “little different” to be on national TV just weeks after being in prison. Watching the “Dateline” episode “got a little emotional at times” he says, “but I knew it was going to be a happy ending.”
It was emotional for Nirider to watch as well, especially after Davis was out of prison and hugged his mother. “It brought me to tears,” she says.
The “Dateline” episode will bring more attention to and awareness about those who make false confessions, she says. “The trauma of the interview sticks with them for years, while the real perpetrator is out there walking around.”
Says Nirider, “In a convoluted way, Robert was quite lucky because his interview was captured on video, which is something not required in Virginia. The importance of having that record cannot be understated.”
Albemarle’s newly elected commonwealth’s attorney, Robert Tracci, is aware of Garrett’s work that showed of the first 250 convictions exonerated by DNA evidence, 40 involved a false confession.
Tracci says that while interrogation techniques have evolved considerably in recent years, it’s “both necessary and appropriate” to reconsider practices that have produced false confessions.
Garrett finds it troubling few agencies have policies that explain how to avoid contaminating confessions or coercing false confessions. “We urgently need sound model policies for agencies because otherwise we will continue to see false confessions and tragic exonerations in Virginia,” he says.
Although he’s become the poster boy for false confession, Davis is more focused on looking ahead—and for a full-time job. He’s got rent to pay.
He used to love to cook—and weighed about 350 pounds before he went to prison—and says he recently made spaghetti. Although he weighs about 100 pounds fewer than he did pre-prison, Davis says he’s joined a gym because he’s gained some weight since he got out.
“I’ve noticed everything I took for granted, even simple stuff like driving down the road,” he says.
Davis’ goals are modest: “Being an average citizen, living an enjoyable life of freedom,” he says. “I just want to thrive.”
And what he wants people to know about his experience? “I want them to know that I’m innocent,” he says. “That’s why I’m home. Justice did its thing even though it was slow.”