Robert Davis faced the camera on Facebook live at 7pm December 16. Two hours earlier, at 4:48pm, Governor Terry McAuliffe signed an absolute pardon that proclaimed Davis’ innocence for the two murders that kept him in prison for 13 years.
“I’m a free man,” said Davis on camera. “I’m trying not to cry, y’all have to understand, I’m trying not to cry.”
He then took scissors and cut the GPS ankle bracelet that he’d worn since getting out of prison December 21, 2015, when McAuliffe granted him a conditional pardon.
“I’m a free man,” he said. “I’m a free man.”
Davis was 18 years old when Albemarle police wanted to talk to him about a horrific murder that had taken place in his Crozet neighborhood February 19, 2003. After the flames died down in the house on Cling Lane, Nola Charles, 41, was found with her arms duct-taped and a knife in her back. Her 3-year-old son, Thomas, was found under debris in her bedroom, dead from smoke inhalation.
Two neighborhood siblings eventually convicted for the murders, Rocky and Jessica Fugett, said Robert was involved in the slayings. Despite dozens of denials the night police picked him up at midnight and interrogated him for six hours, desperate to get some sleep, Davis finally said the fateful words, “What can I say I did to get me out of this?”
Davis entered an Alford plea in which he did not admit guilt, but acknowledged the prosecution had evidence to convict him with what’s now considered a textbook coerced confession coupled with the possible testimony of the Fugetts, both of whom have since recanted their statements that Davis was present at the murder.
Davis, 32, describes the past year he’s been out of prison as “a wild, fun ride.” He says he’s met a lot of musicians, a lot of friends and been astounded by the support of the Charlottesville community. “It’s been phenomenal,” he says.
But it wasn’t total freedom. He had to report to a probation officer and initially had an 11pm curfew. He had to ask for permission to visit his mother over the mountain in Crimora. And he had to wear the ankle bracelet.
“I’ve got an amazing probation officer who lets me do what I want as long as I don’t get in trouble,” he says. He was allowed to go to the beach for the first time as an adult, but because the bracelet is water resistant, but not waterproof, he couldn’t go swimming.
In a year of firsts, he has his own apartment, his first serious relationship and the support of total strangers. He was the subject of a “Dateline” episode, and says every time it airs, “I get texts from people I don’t know saying they’re so glad I’m home,” he says.
He works at ACAC and Holly’s Deli, as well as at his own side landscaping business. But living in Charlottesville is expensive. “I’ve been stressing over how I’m going to pay the bills,” he says.
Now that he’s been granted a full pardon, there could be compensation from the state, says his lawyer, Steve Rosenfield, who has spent thousands of unpaid hours working on Davis’ freedom. A state legislator must submit a bill and have it voted on by the General Assembly.
“It’s an amount that saddens me,” says Rosenfield. “They take the average salary in Virginia and give 90 percent of that. It doesn’t take into consideration Robert lost his teens and twenties. There’s no, ‘Sorry we took away your childhood and young adult years.’”
And there’s another thing that gnaws at Rosenfield. “We’ve been contending for 13 years the confession Robert gave Detective Randy Snead was a coerced confession,” he says. “It’s amazing to me that you can look at it online, and after the conditional pardon, [former Albemarle police chief Steve] Sellers all of a sudden proclaims it’s an unreliable confession. How competent is that police department? Wasn’t anyone paying attention?”
Sandy Seal, Davis’ mother, had her son returned to her last year on her birthday. She acknowledges that the Charles family were victims, but says she and her family were, too.
And the whole 13 years Davis was in prison, she says, “I’ve been kicking myself. I never talked to my kids and said, ‘If a policeman wants to talk to you to clear something up, say you want a lawyer.’”
Davis’ full pardon is only the third one McAuliffe has granted, says Rosenfield, who will request Davis’ record be expunged.
“I’ve had capital cases go to jury,” he says. “I’ve seen people executed. I’ve seen juries make large awards. I’ve never had anything like this—the emotional reaction to Robert’s declaration of innocence.”
“I just screamed at the top of my lungs,” says Davis when he heard the news.
Now he can get rid of the stigma of being a convicted felon, travel and live a normal life, he says.
And throughout his long ordeal, one thing Davis hasn’t been is bitter. “People ask why I smile so much and seem so happy,” he says. “It’s because I’ve been given a second chance at a decent life. I’m just amazed at how much Charlottesville has opened up its arms for me.”