James Davis survived the shrapnel wound he suffered in Vietnam, earning him a Purple Heart. But he never recovered from the psychological wounds he suffered while serving two combat tours of almost constant, brutal fighting — hurts that were compounded by severe childhood abuse and mental illness.
In 1995, Davis walked into the Asheville tool manufacturing plant from which he had been fired a few days earlier and fired about 50 shots that killed three employees: Gerald Allman, Frank Knox and Tony Balogh.
By the time of the murders, everyone who knew Davis believed he was deranged. The victim of a savagely abusive father, Davis had been placed in foster care as a teen. He had never received treatment for symptoms of serious mental illness that plagued him for most of his life, nor had he been treated for the trauma he endured during two combat tours in Vietnam. In the years before his crime, he lived in almost complete isolation, talked to himself and shot at imaginary groundhogs in his yard. Psychiatrists have since diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia and combat-related PTSD.
Quick Facts: James Davis
- Race: White
- County: Buncombe
- Date of Crime: May 17, 1995
- Victim: Frank Knox, White, Age 62; Gerald Allman, White, Age 52; Tony Balogh, White, Age 42
- Conviction Date: September 27, 1996
- Execution Date: Date not currently set
- Errors: Vietnam veteran sentenced to death despite evidence of severe combat-induced PTSD and schizophrenia.
On the day of the shooting, Davis was hallucinating and hearing voices. When investigators interviewed him shortly after he turned himself in, they noted that Davis appeared to be hearing voices during the interview. At his trial, he had to be so heavily medicated that his speech was slurred and he could not hold a coherent conversation.
Despite his clear mental incompetence, Davis was tried and sentenced to death. North Carolina has laws that protect those who cannot comprehend or take responsibility for their crimes, such as people with mental retardation or those deemed seriously mentally ill, from execution. However, Davis did not receive these protections.
His court appointed lawyers badly botched his defense, at first promising the jury that they would not mount an insanity defense and then changing course to present evidence of insanity. Inexplicably, they chose as their expert witness a psychiatrist who had been discredited for dishonesty in a previous capital trial. On cross examination, the psychiatrist was attacked for his errors in past cases, making his testimony on Davis’ mental state essentially worthless.
His lawyers also failed to present any evidence of his severe and untreated PTSD, and provided only limited evidence of his horrific childhood with an alcoholic father who whipped him with a leather strap until he bled and beat Davis with a mop handle if he spoke at the dinner table. The father sexually abused his children and often threatened to kill them while they slept. At 15, Davis was placed in foster care.
At a separate civil trial, in which the families of Davis’ victims sued his former employer for failing to protect them from the mentally ill Davis, more than a dozen witnesses provided clear and compelling evidence of Davis’ mental illness, none of which had been revealed at his criminal trial. The families won one of the largest civil settlements in North Carolina history.
Despite the clear evidence of a miscarriage of justice, Davis’ mental illness has stopped him from receiving the court review to which he is entitled — and which is key to maintaining the integrity of our capital punishment system.
Since he took up residence on death row, Davis’ paranoia and depression have continued to worsen. He fired his attorneys and has declined to appeal his conviction. He told a paralegal who worked on his case that continuing with appeals caused him too much anxiety, and lead to increased paranoia and voices in his head.
In 2009, he received a belated Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam. He now awaits his execution.