Vietnam Vet on Death Row Receives His Medals and Waits for Execution

A recent article in the Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina captures the poignant story of one man's life on death row.  James Floyd Davis is a Vietnam veteran who lashed out with a burst of violence fourteen years ago, killing three people including his boss who had fired him a few days before.  He suffers from mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Through the intervention of a therapist who also served in Vietnam, it was learned that Davis was entitled to a Purple Heart and other medals earned during his service.  The army agreed to award him the medals and the prison eventually agreed to let him receive them.  The reporter, Chick Jacobs, sums up the story this way: "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."  The entire article can be read below:

Sept. 5, 2009

N.C. death row inmate receives medals earned in Vietnam

By Chick Jacobs, Staff writer

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.

There's no certainty that Davis will be executed, although he has given up his appeals. Rose and the Center for Death Penalty Litigation continue to speak on his behalf.

Still, James Floyd Davis will never know freedom again. But his service to country has been recognized.

"Jim said that regardless of what he had done later, he was a soldier," Rose said. "And it was important to recognize that sacrifice.

"In 30 years of working here, I'd never seen anything like it. I'll probably never see it again."

/Staff writer Chick Jacobs can be reached at jacobsc@fayobserver.com <mailto:jacobsc@fayobserver.com> or 486-3515./

 

(C. Jacobs, "N.C. death row inmate receives medals earned in Vietnam," Fayatteville Observer, Sept. 5, 2009).  See Death Row and Mental Illness.