Robert Davis is not angry about what’s happened to him — that kind of thinking can make you sick, he reasons.
That may come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the 31-year-old’s case, from his arrest in 2003 to his release from prison late last year.
It’s been nearly 13 years since a brutal double homicide in Crozet shocked the community and landed Davis and two others in jail. With his whole life ahead of him at the fresh age of 18 when he was arrested, Davis has maintained his innocence ever since. On Dec. 21, Davis’ long slog in the criminal justice system ended when Gov. Terry McAuliffe granted him a conditional pardon for the crime.
Walking out of the Coffeewood Correctional Center, Davis said he still couldn’t quite believe justice had finally been served.
“I thought I was dreaming,” he says now. “I was relieved, but I thought I was dreaming.”
On the morning of Feb. 19, 2003, volunteer firefighters battled back the flames engulfing the Crozet home of Nola Charles. Charles’ two daughters were able to escape from the house, but what firefighters found on the home’s second floor would show that this was far from just a house fire. Charles had been bound to a bedpost with duct tape, beaten and stabbed to death, with her throat slit; her toddler son had died of smoke inhalation.
Speaking of it now, Davis still remembers the morning well — a friend woke him and told him of the fire, so Davis rushed with a neighbor to the scene, assisting the firefighters in whatever fashion they could, he said. A smaller community then, Davis knew Charles from her work at a nearby Amoco station. News quickly spread that she had been found dead, but the details were sparse — until Davis found himself in a police interrogation room days later.
Feb. 21, 2003, was Davis’ last day as a free man before he was taken into custody. After waking at around 6 a.m. and heading to school, Davis remembers later going bowling with a friend, with the plan of staying the night at his place. But before midnight, Davis got a call from his mother insisting that he drive to the Wal-Mart parking lot in Staunton. With a driving curfew for minors in place, Davis’ friend drove him, arriving around 1 a.m. Sitting in the parking lot, the two suddenly found themselves surrounded by patrol cars and officers, guns drawn.
“I was pulled out, thrown to the ground real hard and forcefully handcuffed and everything,” Davis said. “I wasn’t struggling or fighting or nothing, I didn’t know what was going on. I was trying to comply.”
What Davis didn’t know at the time was that the police already had apprehended two other suspects in the case. Siblings Rocky and Jessica Fugett lived across the street from the Charles home and had admitted to their involvement in the slayings. Under interrogation, the brother and sister claimed that two others had participated in the crime. They were two fellow classmates at Western Albemarle High School, one of whom Rocky had been known to bully and beat up from time to time: Robert Davis.
Even now, Davis is still unsure why the Fugetts implicated him. In his sworn affidavit, Rocky Fugett said he wanted to pass some of the blame around, in hopes of a lesser punishment. Jessica’s rationale is still unclear.
By the time he found himself in a police interrogation room, it was nearly 2 a.m. Davis estimates he had been awake for nearly 20 hours. Into the room came Albemarle County police Detective Randy Snead, who previously had worked as a school resource counselor at a special-education school that Davis once attended. To Davis, Snead was someone he could trust.
For more than five hours, Snead asked a shackled Davis about his involvement in the double slaying. The video of the interrogation can be found online today. It shows Davis denying involvement in the crime 78 times and asking five times if he can take a polygraph test. Davis insisted that he was cold, uncomfortable and too tired to continue, but found no relief. Asked why he was fingered by Rocky, Davis confided that Rocky had bullied him for a long time; “I’ve had a problem with Rocky all my life,” he said.
At one point, Davis asked if he would need a lawyer, but recalls Snead implying that getting an attorney would only make Davis look guiltier.
“I didn’t know what the Miranda rights were, I didn’t understand that whole thing. I was still in high school,” Davis said, looking back on it now.
After several hours, an exhausted Davis asked what he needed to say to end the interrogation. Davis said that at this point, Snead had told him several times that he already had evidence placing Davis at the scene of the crime. Snead had even told him that if he didn’t say “what they wanted to hear,” then Davis’ mom would be locked up and his younger brother would go into foster care, Davis said. Seeing no other options, Davis complied.
“I guessed on everything and they gave me the answers for everything I said,” Davis recalls.
Davis later told Snead that what he had said was a lie, all in hopes that he could leave to get some sleep. But the damage was done.
Avoiding a trial
In the months that followed, Davis was convicted of the murders, along with the Fugetts, and sentenced to 23 years in prison. Denise Lunsford, who would go on to be Albemarle County’s top prosecutor, was assigned to Davis’ case, but with the looming possibility that his charges might be upgraded to capital murder, Lunsford asked for Steve Rosenfield to join her.
To Rosenfield, there was never a question about Davis’ innocence. There was no physical evidence in the case, Davis clearly wasn’t friends with the Fugetts and he insisted that he had no involvement. Rosenfield and Lunsford worked to have the confession thrown out on the grounds that it was false and coerced, but to no avail.
Fearing that he could face a life sentence if convicted, Davis discussed his options with his attorneys and his mother.
“We talked about it, and [my mother] said it would be good to at least have a chance to come home as a fairly young man at 40,” Davis said. “I thought about it, and I had reservations about it because I knew I was innocent.”
But the recorded confession, no matter how dubious it appeared, created too much risk, according to Rosenfield. And on top of that, there was a lingering possibility that the Fugetts would testify at Davis’ trial and stick to their original story — Jessica wasn’t a lock for testifying, but Rocky certainly was, Rosenfield said.
“Confessions are powerful and hard to overcome,” Rosenfield said in an email. “That combination created harsh odds against winning, we thought.”
In the end, Davis signed an Alford plea to the charges, meaning that he maintained his innocence but admitted that the prosecution had sufficient evidence to win a conviction.
The first few years in prison were the toughest, Davis said. He was on several medications for depression for the first four or five years, feeling like he was in a “fog,” as he describes it. At this point, the possibility that he was innocent seemed farfetched to everyone around him, he said, and the possibility of getting justice was even more remote. He eventually would learn to get past it, but it wasn’t something he could ever stop thinking about.
“Here I am, still screaming ‘I’m innocent,’ and I don’t have a voice,” Davis said. “Everybody screams they’re innocent.”
He eventually got tired of that “fog,” went off the medications and instantly felt better, he said. He spent his time reading anything he could get his hands on, watching TV and listening to a wide variety of music. He made friends with other inmates — he says he’s always found it easy to talk to people — and still saw his family, though as his mother’s health began to decline, her visits to the prison became increasingly infrequent.
But in 2011, a glimmer of hope emerged. Rocky Fugett met with two reporters at the Sussex II State Prison, where he is serving his 75-year sentence, and recanted his implication that Davis had ever been involved. According to his sworn affidavit, the elder Fugett said he had grown weary of the nightmares he had about helping put an innocent man behind bars. Although initially unwilling, Jessica Fugett later retracted her account, as well, saying Davis had nothing to do with the killings.
Even with the Fugetts’ affidavits, things did not progress as quickly as Davis had anticipated, he said.
“The wheels of justice turn very slowly,” he said.
His first plea for clemency came after Rocky’s recantation, but went nowhere.
Gov. Bob McDonnell denied the plea on his last day in office, without an investigation. It’s ironic now, Davis said, because of McDonnell’s own troubles with the law.
“It’s funny because he’s a crook himself,” he laughed.
But after McAuliffe became governor in early 2014, his office reopened the case, something Davis is thankful for.
“They were thorough, and it took a while, but when they reopened the case, that glimmer of hope expanded,” Davis said. “I’m very grateful that Terry McAuliffe heard my voice through all the legal work and allowed me to come home.”
He’d love to meet him, Davis said, to shake his hand and extend his gratitude.
“He gave me my life back,” he said.
Fight for freedom
Davis shares the same enthusiasm talking about Rosenfield. He says Rosenfield stuck with him through everything, and that he considers him family.
When asked why he kept fighting for Davis for so long, Rosenfield said simply, “that is what lawyers are supposed to do.”
When Dec. 21 eventually rolled around last year, it was Rosenfield that brought the news to Davis.
“I didn’t have any clue that it was going to happen,” Davis said. “I was just waiting for an answer.”
While setting up for a religious service at the prison, Davis was redirected to a prison office. As he approached, Rosenfield poked his head out of a window and yelled, “You need to run or they’re going to change their mind.”
That’s when Davis learned he’d be getting a conditional pardon.
“So I said, ‘so what, I’m staying here for another seven to 10 days?’” Davis recalls. “He said, ‘no, you’re getting out today.’”
Happily bemused, Davis gave Rosenfield a hug and packed his things. A group of inmates he likens to brothers walked him down to be released, and for the first time in 13 years, Davis set foot into the world as a free man.
Davis’ case stands out as another entry in the legal spotlight of false confessions. While instances like those documented in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” have hit the public radar, the criminal justice field has been looking into the phenomenon for decades. The Innocence Project says a quarter of wrongful convictions in the United States stem from false confessions, and a recent study by the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge reports that sleep deprivation is directly linked to them.
“Sleep deprivation has heightened effects on juveniles,” said Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia. “And we know far more about just how cognitively vulnerable juveniles are to coercion. It does not take much to get a kid to falsely confess.”
Garrett said about a third of the DNA evidence-based exonerations he’s studied have involved false confessions, but that many law enforcement agencies in Virginia nonetheless interrogate juveniles the same way they would adults. Few agencies are even required to videotape full interrogations with juveniles, despite guidance from the Department of Criminal Justice Services.
Davis’ case is another example of police conducting a grueling interrogation without strong evidence, Garrett said.
“I have, unfortunately, seen many cases of innocent people who plead out rather than risk a conviction based on a false confession,” Garrett said. “The risks of trial are particularly dire in Virginia, given very broad sentencing ranges.”
Learning to move on
It might be easy for Davis to harbor ill will toward the people who put him in prison for so long, but after so many years behind bars, Davis said he’s learned to move on. He’s not spoken with either of the Fugett siblings, and doesn’t intend to ever reach out to them.
“I forgave them, but I don’t know if I could talk to them or write a letter,” he said. “I don’t think it’d be appropriate now anyway.”
He feels similarly about Snead, who could not be reached for comment for this story. Davis said he doesn’t intend to seek an apology, or even just an explanation, from him. “I know I won’t get one,” he said.
“While I have nothing to say, because I won’t speak negatively about a person while they’re not around, if he was to come in here right now and try to corner me, I’d lift my head up high and walk by him,” Davis said.
To hold on to acrimony would only devalue the freedom that Davis has finally been granted, he said.
“If you live with bitterness and anger in your heart, and you just don’t let it go, it affects your health,” Davis said. “I’ve brushed it off my shoulders. I’m not going to be an angry, bitter person.”
Instead, Davis plans to thrive — the only kicker is a piece of plastic fastened around his ankle.
A conditional pardon keeps him on probation, meaning he has to check in with a probation officer, wear an ankle monitor and abide by curfews and travel restrictions.
Having that felony on his record limits his employment potential significantly, too. Davis grew up wanting to get a nursing license so that he could join the military and become a medic, but the felony conviction makes that dream unreachable.
That could all change, though — the governor’s office has told him that within a year, he can put in for absolute clemency, which would clear the felony from his record. That would open a lot of doors for Davis.
“I could actually get a full life back, and be able to provide and do good and show that I can be an asset to society,” he said.
If an absolute pardon is granted, Davis said he’d like to travel to law schools to talk about his experiences and insights on coerced confessions. Davis thinks change is needed in interrogation policy, so that tactics such as lying to young suspects during interrogations without significant evidence wouldn’t fly. He’s seen the damage it can do firsthand.
Davis’ first few weeks of freedom were overwhelming, he said, but he’s taking things slowly, assimilating to the world he’s missed out on for so many years.
One of the wildest things about this new world he’s encountering is seeing “everybody always looking down at their cellphones and walking, not paying attention.” That said, he’s still impressed by how technology has grown; he can now whip out his cellphone and call his mom anytime of the day, a luxury that used to be afforded only once a week.
He still returns to Crozet from time to time, and people he knew before his incarceration say they’re glad to see him home, he said. Plenty of them say they always believed in his innocence because of his “teddy bear”-like demeanor, one that he still carries today. He’s heard of some negative posts on social media about his release, but he shrugs them off.
“People that probably don’t know the case wanted to say something to just start trouble,” Davis said. “They probably just want to hide behind a computer screen.”
If the absolute pardon goes through, there could be more time for schooling in Davis’ future, as well. A lifelong Harley-Davidson fan, Davis wants to learn to work on motorcycles, and hopes that a full pardon might allow him to one day study at the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Florida. Either way, he plans to settle down in the Charlottesville area and be a part of the community.
For a guy who was forced to live more than a third of his life behind bars, Davis isn’t going to let that darkness get in the way of his newfound light.
“It’s nice to wake up and not see a concrete door, concrete walls and 80 other people in the same building,” Davis said. “I’m no longer waking up in the morning thinking I’m going to realize this was all a dream.”
Dean Seal is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7268, email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org or @JDeanSeal on Twitter.