Insight: Florida man sees 'cruel' face of U.S. justice

MIAMI Wed Jul 4, 2012 12:51pm EDT

1 of 2. Quartavious Davis is pictured in this undated booking photo from the Broward County Sheriff's Office in Florida.

MIAMI (Reuters) - Quartavious Davis is still shocked by what happened to him in federal court two months ago.

"My first offense, and they gave me all this time," said Davis, a pudgy African American with dreadlocks who spoke with Reuters at the Federal Detention Center in Miami. "Might just as well say I'm dead."

Davis was convicted of participating in a string of armed robberies in the Miami area in 2010. His accomplices testified against him, saying he carried a gun during their crimes and discharged it at a dog that chased them after one of their burglaries. But Davis was not convicted of hurting anyone physically, including the dog.

Davis would occupy no place at all in the annals of crime if not for his sentence. Now 20 years old, he was sentenced to 1,941 months - almost 162 years - in prison without the possibility of parole.

On the day of Davis's interview with Reuters, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that life sentences without parole for defendants under the age of 18 constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" even in cases of murder. Unfortunately for Davis, he was 18 at the time of his crimes.

Nonetheless, Davis's attorney will argue that Davis's sentence to die in prison also constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" on the grounds that Davis is a "first offender," having never before been charged with a crime.

"Just as the Supreme Court recently held that the Constitution bars taking away all discretion from judges in sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment for committing murder," said the attorney, Jacqueline Shapiro, "so also is it cruel and extreme to allow unfettered prosecutorial discretion to force a sentencing judge to impose a life sentence on a teenage first offender convicted of lesser charges."

Davis's unusually long sentence results from a controversial practice known as "stacking," in which each count of an indictment is counted as a separate crime, thus transforming a first-time defendant into a "habitual criminal" subject to multiple sentences and mandatory sentencing guidelines.

"Any law that provides for a mandatory term of imprisonment for a 19-year-old first offender that exceeds a century has got to be unconstitutional," said Michael Zelman, the court-appointed attorney who represented Davis at his trial.

Zelman resigned from Davis's case after filing a notice of appeal. If Davis's new lawyer, Shapiro, has her way, the Supreme Court may ultimately decide the issue. The case will be appealed first to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Until then, Davis's story will be a prominent case in point for both sides in an increasingly heated debate, pitting those who would protect society from the prospective dangers posed by serial criminals against those who see the United States - whose overcrowded prisons house fully one-quarter of all the prisoners in the world, most of them black or Hispanic - as a bastion of injustice.

ODD MAN OUT

When he was arrested on December 23, 2010, Davis was an unemployed high school dropout living with an aunt in Goulds, Florida, a poor, predominantly black neighborhood south of Miami.

According to expert testimony at his trial, Davis suffers from a learning disability and bipolar disorder.

At the time of his arrest, he told Reuters, he was living on $674 a month in Social Security disability payments and hoping to get back into school to learn a trade.

On February 9 of this year he was convicted of committing seven armed robberies at fast-food restaurants, a Walgreens pharmacy and other commercial establishments in the Miami area from August to October of 2010.

Davis, who still maintains his innocence, was the only one of the six men charged who went to trial. The others cut plea deals that left them with sentences of nine to 22 years in prison.

As the odd man out, Davis was convicted largely on the basis of his accomplices' testimony, court documents show.

Davis, who was not identified as the group's ringleader, claims he was never offered a plea bargain.

Davis's ex-attorney, Zelman, declined to comment on this point, citing attorney-client privilege.

Prosecutors declined to comment on any aspect of this story.

During the prison interview, Davis was advised by Shapiro not to discuss many specifics about his case.

According to the trial transcript, one of Davis's accomplices testified that he fired his weapon on two occasions - at the dog who chased him and 11 days later outside a Wendy's restaurant they had just robbed. He said Davis traded gunshots with a customer at the restaurant as he and three others sped away in their getaway car.

The accounts of Davis's firing his gun were otherwise uncorroborated.

The armed customer outside Wendy's, Dade County Public Schools maintenance worker Antonio Lamont Brooks, was unable to offer positive identification of the man with whom he exchanged gunfire. But he was uninjured and managed to squeeze off enough rounds from his 9mm handgun to leave one of Davis's accomplices with a bullet wound in his left buttock.

TOUGH PROSECUTORS

It is not clear why prosecutors decided to throw the full weight of the law at Davis.

Florida, though, has a history of "very zealous" prosecutions, according to Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, which advocates for reform in the criminal-justice system.

For example, Florida leads in the number of juveniles sentenced to life without parole for lesser crimes than murder, sentences the Supreme Court declared to be unconstitutional in 2010. Florida and other states are now trying to determine how to resentence or grant parole to inmates affected by that ruling.

According to a recent study by the Pew Center on the States, Florida was first, among the 35 states reporting, in increases in time served in its prisons from 1990 to 2009.

In one recent, highly controversial Florida sentencing, Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman in Jacksonville with no previous criminal record, was sentenced to 20 years for firing a pistol twice into the air while trying to ward off an attack by her abusive husband. Denied the protection of Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law, the 31-year-old mother of three was convicted of aggravated assault, a felony, and given the mandatory sentence for anyone who fires a gun in commission of the felony.

Davis's sentencing has not generated the same degree of public interest.

"THE INSTALLMENT PLAN"

Davis was convicted of seven counts of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, an offense punishable under the so-called mandatory minimum sentences imposed by Congress since the late 1980s.

Mauer said such sentences have been associated with an 800 percent increase in the federal prison population since 1980.

Davis received seven years for the first of the firearm counts against him and 25 years apiece for each of the six subsequent counts. The law, as written by Congress, requires the sentences to be served consecutively. In prison slang, such sentences are sometimes referred to as "life on the installment plan" or "running wild."

In a report to Congress last October, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for federal courts, noted that many law enforcement officials, including New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, viewed mandatory minimum penalties as an important "investigative tool" because they provide leverage over suspects and help persuade them to cooperate with the authorities in exchange for lesser charges.

"In addition to their deterrent effect, some policymakers assert that mandatory minimum penalties reduce crime by incapacitating criminals and protecting the public from their potential future offenses," the commission said.

At the same time, it criticized certain aspects of the mandatory minimum laws, observing that the practice of stacking, in particular, can result in "excessively severe and unjust sentences."

Since 2003 the Justice Department has had guidelines in place that discourage prosecutors from stacking in cases where it can lead to excessive sentences.

Yet prosecutors have broad discretion within their jurisdictions to follow their own lights, according to criminal-law experts.

In a statement issued the day after the sentencing, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Wifredo Ferrer hailed Davis's lock-up for life as sending an unmistakable warning to anyone seeking to profit from violent crime.

"We will not allow our community to be overrun by guns and violence," he said.

Although he has no alternative explanation, Davis cannot accept that that is the real reason he will have to die in prison.

"There ain't no justice in the justice system," he said, gazing down at his olive-green prison jumpsuit and beige rubber sandals.

"I ain't going to never accept what happened," he added. "They know what they did isn't right."

(Editing by Lee Aitken, Douglas Royalty, Prudence Crowther, Jim Gaines and Eric Beech)

(This story was corrected to add dropped words "or Hispanic" in 11th paragraph)

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