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Javon Davis

Other Minnesota Exonerations
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At 2:57 a.m. on April 12, 2014, Kibbie Walker and Cortez Blakemore left Target Field, the home of the Minnesota Twins, in downtown Minneapolis after finishing their shift. Outside the stadium, they were met by three men, all wearing sweatshirts with the hoods pulled up tight around their faces.

One of the three men nodded to another man, who pulled out a revolver and shot Walker and Blakemore. Walker received superficial chest wounds; Blakemore was hit in the spine and left paralyzed.

Walker told a police officer who arrived at the scene that he could not identify the shooter or any of the other men. He was taken to the hospital, and later that day, he told an officer that the man who had nodded to the other man just before shots were fired was Justin McGee. Another eyewitness, Ebony Yates, who was Walker’s girlfriend, also told police that she believed McGee was one of the assailants, although she acknowledged that the hood obscured most of his face. A third witness, Marvin Johnson, a supervisor of the stadium crew, said the men’s faces were too covered to see anything.

Walker, who was later shot to death in 2019, was a member of a Minneapolis gang called “The Taliban.” The 2014 shooting occurred during a period of intense violence between Walker’s gang and another gang known as “1-9 Block Dipset,” and police believed that the attack on Walker was gang-related. Walker was rumored to have been involved in the murder of Tyrone Washington, a leader of the 1-9 gang, and a close friend of 26-year-old Javon Davis.

On April 14, 2014, after Walker was released from the hospital, he went to the Minneapolis Police Department. Police were by then operating under the assumption that Davis was the shooter, and in their interview with Walker, they implied (falsely) that Davis’s photo had been captured on video surveillance. By then, Walker had also heard on social media that Davis was involved and had viewed his picture, and he eventually told police that Davis was the shooter. The police then conducted a photo lineup, and Walker selected Davis from the array.

Davis had an alibi. He said he had been at a nightclub in downtown Minneapolis until about 2:30, then left with some friends – including McGee – for a Flameburger restaurant just north of the city. He said he had returned to South Minneapolis at about 3:45 a.m. to pick up his car. Part of that alibi included a cellphone call to Davis’s girlfriend at 2:57 a.m., the precise time of the shooting, and calls on that same phone made by McGee to his girlfriend just before and after the shooting. But McGee undercut that alibi. He would tell police that Davis wasn’t with him most of that morning, and that the cellphone didn’t belong to Davis.

Davis, known in most court records as James Davis, was arrested on May 5, 2014 and charged with two counts of attempted second-degree murder for the benefit of a gang. McGee was similarly charged, and their trials were severed based on antagonistic defenses. Before trial, McGee’s charges were dismissed on October 23, 2014, and he would be one of the state’s principal witnesses against Davis.

Davis’s trial in Hennepin County District Court began on February 17, 2015. Walker was the state’s first witness, and he testified that contrary to what he told police on April 14, 2014, he wasn’t sure who shot him. “Technically, I didn't see nobody because everybody had on hoodies. But after the fact, I was told somebody was there. I didn't see him personally. But that's what I told the sergeant because that's what I was told, and that's what I understood. But I didn't technically see nobody because everybody had on hoodies. All I seen was a gun and then I got shot.”

A prosecutor asked Walker if he was worried about the punishment for “snitching,” and Walker said that wasn’t an issue; everybody snitched.

“The problem is I don't know for sure that he did it. And I don't want to send somebody to jail that I don't even know for sure, that I'm going off of what somebody else said. The only person that was actually identified by a witness was Justin McGee, and he's not even in here. I don't know for sure that he did anything. And I'm not gonna point him out if I don't know for sure off my own eyes, then I would be lying.”

Prosecutors then introduced the videotape of Walker’s statement to police into evidence. Davis’s attorney, Michael Padden, didn’t object, and the jury watched the 56-minute video. During the video, the police made numerous allegations about Davis, including that he posed a threat to public safety, and that Davis needed to be convicted to both send a message to other gang members and to protect women and children in the community.

McGee testified that at the time of the shooting he was riding around with James Brown and Clarence Brown. McGee said he used a cellphone in the car, which he referred to as a “1-9 business phone” to call his girlfriend. The three men got gas and went to the Flameburger, where they met Davis. McGee said Davis made several incriminating statements, along the lines of: “I just did that. It’s time to celebrate.”

Separately, the state introduced evidence purportedly tying Davis to a gang-related murder in 2010. A police officer testified that telecommunications records had placed Davis’s cellphone near the shooting, and a witness had said Davis shared facial similarities with the shooter. But no charges were ever brought, and the witness identification had occurred two years after the shooting.

Davis did not testify, but he presented three alibi witnesses. Miranda Pierson, his girlfriend, testified that she had spoken with Davis at 2:57 a.m. on April 12, and that they had tried to contact each other several times during the hours before and after the shooting. She said the cellphone number that McGee claimed was a 1-9 business phone belonged to Davis. It wasn’t communal property. Another witness, Donesha Benson, testified that she had hung out with Davis on April 11, and that they had traded phone calls several times later that day and into the morning of April 12. James Brown testified that he was with Davis, McGee, and Clarence Brown continuously from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. on April 12, getting gas and going to the Flameburger after the nightclub closed. The state tried to impeach these witnesses by noting that they had arrest records or convictions. In Brown’s case, prosecutors questioned why he had never told the police after Davis was arrested that he was with him that night. Brown responded that the police had never asked him.

Davis was convicted on both counts on February 23, 2015 and later sentenced to 339 months in prison.

His first appeal was rejected by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2016, and a pro se motion for post-conviction relief was rejected by a judge in Hennepin County District Court in 2018. During that period, Davis contacted the Innocence Project of Minnesota, which sent a law student to interview him at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater. He told the student that he wasn’t just innocent, he was “Innocence Project innocent.”

Later that year, on November 20, 2018, attorneys with the Innocence Project filed a new motion for post-conviction relief, claiming Davis has been wrongfully convicted based largely on ineffective assistance of counsel. The motion said that Padden should have objected to the introduction of Walker’s video statement, which was filled with hearsay evidence from the police about Davis that was highly prejudicial.

In addition, the petition said that Padden had failed to present important evidence that impeached the testimony of Walker and McGee and that supported Davis’s alibi that he was on the phone with Pearson at the time of the shooting.

Padden had known prior to the trial that Marvin Johnson’s statement to the police said the assailant’s faces were not visible, but he didn’t call Johnson as a witness. Separately, two women had heard Walker say he could not see who had shot him. One of the women also heard McGee say after the charges against him were dismissed that he didn’t care if he lied to implicate Davis, because “A lie is what got us in this, right?”

But most importantly, Padden had fumbled the cellphone records. First, while he had discussed the records during his opening and closing statements and had used them during his examination of witnesses, he had never introduced them into evidence. This meant they were not available for jurors to look at during deliberations.

The records themselves were confusing. They contained both voice calls and text messages, and because of the recordkeeping used by the carrier, the voice and text streams were reported in different time zones. Padden didn’t know this, so he assumed the records were in a clear chronological order. If he had hired an expert to better understand the records, he might have been able to tease apart a digital record that supported Davis’s contention that the phone was his, and that he had only let McGee use it while they were driving around.

“Had counsel engaged the services of an expert in interpreting the cell phone records,” the motion said, “he would have discovered the fact that several text messages were sent from the phone during the crucial time period surrounding Mr. Walker’s shooting. These messages could have provided objective, unimpeachable evidence as to who was using the cell phone that night and what they were doing at the time the crime took place.”

The motion for relief also claimed that Davis’s appellate counsel had been ineffective by failing to raise the issue of Padden’s ineffective representation on direct appeal.

On March 2, 2020, Judge Paul Scoggin of Hennepin County District Court vacated Davis’s conviction and ordered a new trial. His 141-page order was sharply critical of the work of both Davis’s trial and appellate counsel.

While stating that his ruling didn’t exonerate Davis, Scoggin wrote: “Having carefully scrutinized the complete record, this Court is persuaded that however well-intentioned and deliberate some of the crucial decisions made by Davis' trial counsel and appellate counsel may have been, they were, on balance, not the product of effective and reasonably-competent representation given the crimes charged and the nature of the evidence possessed by the State and presented during the trial.”

Davis was released from prison on March 5, 2020. Two weeks later, on March 18, the Hennepin County District Attorney dismissed the charges in a one-sentence filing that said the move was “in the interest of justice.”

“I’m ecstatic and so thankful to the whole Innocence Project of Minnesota,” Davis told the Star-Tribune newspaper. “I am so happy they believed in me. They saved my life.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 4/6/2020
State:Minnesota
County:Hennepin
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2014
Convicted:2015
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:28 years and 3 months
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No