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Thomas Davis


Just before midnight on August 13, 1968, Phyllis Davis left her home in Grand Island, Nebraska, telling her young daughter that she was going out to get “milk and a sandwich.” At 2:30 a.m. on August 14, her body was found in the family station wagon in a ditch on a county road.

The early investigation pointed to death due to injuries from a simple car accident. As a result, there was no initial attempt to do an accident reconstruction or to perform a blood-alcohol test on Davis’s body during the autopsy.

At some point, investigators with the Hall County Sheriff’s Department began to focus on Davis’s husband, Thomas Davis, who was 32 years old. Davis sold restaurant equipment across western Nebraska, and his wife acted as the office assistant and bookkeeper when Davis was on the road. In recent months, she had written more than 70 checks that were returned for insufficient funds. In addition, in the months before her death, the Davises had taken out $100,000 in life and travel insurance policies on each other. Finally, their marriage was rocky. Both husband and wife were having affairs. There was discussion of a divorce.

Davis had an alibi. He said that at the time of his wife’s death, he was 100 miles away in Lincoln, Nebraska, visiting his parents and his grandfather with two of their seven children. He had called home just before 11 p.m. on August 13.

After a coroner’s inquest, Davis was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

The trial took place in Hall County District Court in March 1969. There were no witnesses and no murder weapon. The state’s theory was that Phyllis Davis had been beaten to death and then someone had staged the car in a ditch to make it look like an accident. A pathologist testified that Phyllis Davis had injuries consistent with being beaten. The state also produced evidence that suggested the station wagon hadn’t been going fast enough to cause a fatal accident. Davis and his attorneys said Phyllis Davis had died during the car crash when a meat slicer in the back of the station wagon slammed into her head when she came to a stop in the ditch.

The state’s evidence was circumstantial. Along with evidence of insurance policies and marital discord, the prosecutor also introduced testimony suggesting that Thomas Davis hadn’t been very interested in finding out about what caused the accident. The Davises were scheduled to go to California on August 14. Tom Davis had seen his lover when he was in Lincoln, but he did not tell her about the vacation. In the state’s theory, that showed he never planned to take the trip.

Davis did not testify. But his mother did, and she told jurors that her son was home that night. They had stayed up late, and she had seen him in bed at 2:30 a.m. Davis also introduced evidence of his wife’s extra-marital affairs.

The jury convicted Davis on March 14, 1969, and he was sentenced to life in prison. He quickly appealed, and on April 24, 1970, the Nebraska Supreme Court overturned his conviction.

The court said that Judge Donald Weaver had erred when denying a defense request for a continuance to confer with experts about examining hair and blood samples found in the station wagon. More important, the court said that there had been prosecutorial misconduct during the trial, particularly during the state’s closing argument, when the prosecutor had commented to jurors about Davis’s absence from the witness stand.

The retrial was in February 1971 and took eight days. This time, Davis testified in his own behalf and denied killing his wife. In addition, his grandfather, a former Nebraska state senator, also testified and supported his alibi. Davis was acquitted.

In 2010, Davis applied for compensation from the state of Nebraska. He sought the maximum of $500,000. Although Davis was only in prison for a year, his application described the toll that the wrongful conviction took on him and his family. He was separated from his seven children. He lost his business. His home was burglarized. While in prison, he was stabbed and saw a fellow inmate set on fire in his cell for being labeled a snitch. The state initially fought his request, filing a motion to exclude the testimony of an engineer who re-examined the traffic accident. In 2014, Davis received $250,000 in state compensation. He died in 2016.

– Ken Otterbourg
State:NE
County:Hall
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1968
Convicted:1969
Exonerated:1971
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:32
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct