Robert Davis stepped outside the walls of a prison as a free man today for the first time since he was arrested at gunpoint nearly 13 years ago. Governor Terry McAuliffe issued a conditional pardon in a case that experts have called a textbook case of false confession.
After being released from Coffeewood Correctional Center in Mitchells, Davis, 31, said Monday afternoon that he was “elated.”
“Words can’t describe it. If it weren’t for that man there fighting for me (pointing to his lawyer, Steve Rosenfield), I wouldn’t be out right now, ” Davis said before getting choked up.
Asked about the first thing he wanted to do after being released, Davis didn’t hesitate: “I want to go hug my mother,” he said.
Today is an especially happy day for Davis’ mother, Sandy Seal—it also happens to be her birthday.
“I’m so grateful it’s my birthday and my son is coming home,” Seal said via phone. She was waiting at a friend’s house to be reunited with her son.
The crime was one that rocked Crozet. On a chilly February 19, 2003, morning, firefighters raced to a home on Cling Lane in response to a reported fire. Upon entering the charred remains of the house, they made a much more gruesome discovery—Nola “Ann” Charles,41, bound with duct tape, throat slit and face down in her toddler son’s bunk bed. A charred knife protruded from her back. Her three-year-old son William was found dead in her room from smoke inhalation.
Two suspects, Rocky Fugett, 19 at the time, and his 15-year-old sister, Jessica, were arrested and charged with murder within two days. The Fugetts named two other Western Albemarle High School students as accomplices, including then-18-year-old Robert Davis. After holding the other student in juvenile detention for several months, police dropped charges, citing insufficient evidence.
Davis was arrested February 22 and, starting around 2am, subjected to five hours of interrogation by former Albemarle police officer Randy Snead, whom Davis knew as a school resource officer. Shackled in a chilly room, he denied involvement in the murder dozens of times. It was only after five hours that he asked the fateful question, “What can I say I did to get me out of this?” according to a transcript of his interrogation, which C-VILLE posted on YouTube earlier this year.
His case has gained the attention of experts in false confession, including the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, where a professor there, Laura Nirider, has called Davis’ confession “one of the most coercive I’ve ever seen.”
The idea of confessing to a crime one didn’t commit is hard to grasp, but there are those who are particularly susceptible to doing so. UVA false confession expert and law professor Brandon Garrett has identified juveniles and the mentally disabled as more prone to do so, as are those who are exhausted and drunk.
“The interviews in false confessions I looked at lasted over three hours,” said Garrett in a 2011 interview. “If someone is exhausted, they think if they just go along with the interrogation, they can clear it up later.”
Because of the confession and the threat of testimony by both Fugetts saying he was there, Davis entered an Alford plea in September 2004, maintaining his innocence while acknowledging the prosecution had enough evidence to convict him. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison, of which he’s served nearly 13 years.
Rocky Fugett pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in November 2005, and was sentenced to 75 years. Jessica, initially found incompetent to stand trial, did stand trial, was found guilty of two first-degree murders, and sentenced to 100 years in 2006.
Both Fugetts have since filed affidavits admitting that they lied about Davis’ involvement—Rocky in 2006 and Jessica in 2012..
In 2011, Rosenfield filed a hefty clemency petition package with then governor Bob McDonnell, and it lingered until his last day in office, when he denied the petition. Deputy Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Tonya Vincent later revealed the McDonnell administration had never investigated the case. When Governor Terry McAuliffe took office in 2014, Rosenfield sent a second clemency request.
Virginia’s track record on false confessions is not stellar. Earl Washington Jr. spent 18 years in prison and came within nine days of execution after giving a false confession to the rape and murder of a Culpeper woman in 1982. After another man’s DNA was linked to the crime, Governor Doug Wilder commuted his sentence to life in prison. Washington served another six years in prison until Governor Jim Gilmore pardoned him.
In the notorious case of sailors known as the Norfolk Four who falsely confessed to a brutal 1997 rape and murder, when exculpatory DNA came to light Governor Tim Kaine refused to grant full pardons and instead conditionally freed them in 2009 while requiring them to register as sex offenders and felons.
Rosenfield praised McAuliffe. “The governor stepped up when Bob McDonnell didn’t,” he said. “The McAuliffe administration spent two years investigating this case and concluded Robert deserved a pardon.”
“People will know now it’s true,” said Sandy Seal. “Robert didn’t do this.”