By Chick Jacobs
James Floyd Davis would never know freedom again. Now 62 years old,
slightly stooped with thick reading glasses and pasty skin, he looks
far removed from the wild-eyed loner who snapped in a violent, bloody
spree 14 years ago. And he looks far removed from the tanned, wiry
young man who traded an abusive home life for two tours in the jungles
of Vietnam - and a chunk of shrapnel that still throbs in his thigh
when the weather turns cold.
All of that past, all of that horror and hurt, stared through thick
reading glasses at Jim Johnson as the retired Fayetteville therapist
tried to discover who James Davis was. This is a story of how one
veteran, wounded in body and spirit, reached into the demon-filled
darkness of a fellow veteran who lost his way long ago. It's the
unlikely tale of how a medal earned in one horror helped bring a touch
of humanity to another.
It's probably best to get the unpleasant truth out of the way: James
Floyd Davis is a killer. On a spring morning in 1995, just before
lunchtime, Davis calmly strolled into an Asheville tool company where
he'd recently been fired for fighting. Instead of his usual bag lunch,
the 47-year-old was carrying a semiautomatic rifle and a pistol. Davis
wasn't looking for a fight; he was looking for death. He fired about
50 shots, killing three people - including two bosses who had fired
him two days earlier. Then he lit a cigarette, stepped outside and
surrendered to police.
At his trial, testimony told the court what everybody already seemed
to know: James Davis was crazy. He lived alone, had no life beyond
work, ate by himself, talked to himself and picked fights with
co-workers, threatening to "take everyone with him" if he were fired.
He also used a .44 magnum to shoot imaginary groundhogs in his front
yard. But the trial presented much more.
As a child in western North Carolina, Davis lived with an abusive,
drunken dad who would threaten to cut his children's throats in their
sleep and burn down the house. Davis was regularly beaten with a
leather strap that drew blood; if he spoke at the dinner table, he was
beaten with a mop handle. He was left hungry, and his father locked
the freezer and kept the key. This was the man, the monster, the
cowering child that Jim Johnson saw staring blankly at him at
Raleigh's Central Prison.
Johnson, a trained therapist, pastor and counselor, had dealt with the
abused and mentally ill before. In Davis he saw "a throwaway kid with
little hope from the beginning. "He had nobody who'd visit him, nobody
he could relate to," Johnson said. "You're trained to remain
professional, but you begin to develop an understanding of what leads
a person to become what they are." Johnson, however, wasn't there
because Davis was disturbed. He was there because Davis, like Johnson,
was a soldier. Both had served in Vietnam during the maelstrom of the
Tet Offensive. Johnson was a chaplain along the Mekong River, armed
only with faith as he stepped into a daily barrage of shelling and
suffering. He saw children die and young men grow old quickly - if
they got the chance. Davis served on a firebase in the Central
Highlands, losing his hearing and gaining a chunk of shrapnel along
the way. He spent a week in the hospital recovering from the wounds;
part of the metal remains in his leg. "
He was a corporal at one of the 105 mm howitzer bases," Johnson said.
"Those were key targets of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese during
Tet." The men also shared post traumatic stress disorder, the result
of battle stress during the war. Johnson, though eventually a
lieutenant colonel and a successful therapist, struggled with its
effects for decades.
His condition gave him a unique perspective as a family and marriage
counselor at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church. The effects of PTSD on
the already-fragile psyche of Davis were far more damaging. Although
he reached the rank of sergeant, "He said the war just wore him out,"
Johnson said. After coming home, Davis' marriage collapsed, he
attempted suicide and he was diagnosed by a Veterans Administration
physician as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and depression. The
two were brought together by Ken Rose, a lawyer with the state's
Center for Death Penalty Litigation. The group says Davis received
inadequate counsel during his trial, leading to a death sentence.
"Make no mistake, James Davis needs to be confined for the remainder
of his life," Rose said. "I think he's the most mentally ill person on
death row today. "However, his defense did not ever raise the issue of
his mental illness until well into the trial." Rose had learned about
Johnson and hoped his training and military background "could help me
understand my client." Johnson, who had worked with inmates in
California's San Quentin prison, was aware of Davis' bloody past. But,
he said, "I wasn't looking at a criminal. I was looking at a fellow
veteran, wounded physically and mentally in service to his country."
Johnson, close to Davis' age and sharing the bond of combat, was able
to get him to open up. They talked about life and death, combat and
fear. That's when Johnson learned that Davis had never received the
award due him as an injured soldier. "You have to remember, this was
during the chaos of Tet," Johnson said. "There were so many people
injured and killed, so much going on, it's not surprising that a
number of soldiers never received the proper recognition." "No
soldier's service to our country should be ignored," Johnson said. "A
lot of people would say, 'It's just a medal. Forget it.' "Not to me,
it's not. To me, it's the recognition that every soldier deserves. No
matter what happened, his service should be recognized."
Davis was "meek, humbled by the idea" of getting the medal, Johnson
said. "It was as if he never expected anyone to do something for him."
His lawyers were less than encouraging. "To a person, everyone said
not to get my hopes up," Johnson said. Rose admitted, "It was a long
shot at best. As far as I could tell, there had never been a death row
inmate in North Carolina receiving a medal. And I didn't think this
would be the first." In November, the Army agreed that Davis' medical
records were enough proof that he should receive the Purple Heart. As
the only military medal that is awarded by action, rather than
recommendation, any soldier injured by enemy action is entitled to it.
But Johnson and the lawyers learned something else: Davis had been
awarded other medals as well, including the Good Conduct Medal.
The Army was happy to send the medals. The prison was less
enthusiastic about letting him receive them. "They said no, like we
expected," Rose said. "It was something that was just too unusual. It
would take intervention by someone higher up the ladder." Johnson
found that someone in James French, a former warden of Central Prison
and now deputy director of the state's correction system. He also was
a Vietnam veteran. He was wounded during the war and received a Purple
Heart. Would he be willing to allow a fellow veteran the same honor?
French thought about it and agreed.
On July 29, James Davis was unshackled and escorted into a small
hearing room just off death row. Johnson and Rose were there. So were
two fellow veterans, Ray Shurling of Fayetteville and Ron Miriello of
Sanford. Johnson, at 6-foot-6, towered over the slouched prisoner
standing before him. "But when I prepared to pin his medals on, he
stood straight up, hands cupped to the side," he recalled. Johnson
pinned on two of the medals: the Purple Heart and the Good Conduct
award. He stepped back and saluted. Davis replied with a
textbook-sharp salute. For a moment, it seemed he wasn't a prisoner.
Forty years later, he was a soldier again. "Jim, you've just pulled
off a miracle," Rose said afterward. "It wasn't a miracle," Johnson
replied. "It was just the right thing to do." Davis wasn't allowed to
keep the medals. He'll never be able to touch them again. His world
has returned to the unyielding routine of Unit III in Raleigh.
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