Judge resentences Adolfo Davis to life in prison

Judge resentences Adolfo Davis to life in prison

Update: May 4, 2015


A Cook County judge has upheld a life without parole sentence for a man who received that sentence for his part in a double murder when he was 14.

Adolfo Davis - now 38 - slumped forward and put his head down on the defense table this morning, wiping away tears, after Judge Angela Petrone reimposed a sentence of natural life without parole. 

"This sentence is necessary to deter others. It is necessary to protect the public from harm. The defendant's acts showed an aggression and callous disregard for human life far beyond his tender age of 14," the judge said in issuing the sentence.

Davis was eligible for a resentencing hearing in his case because of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said mandatory life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional.

Davis was the first of about 80 inmates in Illinois eligible for such hearings, and today's decision by Judge Petrone was being widely watched. 

His defense attorneys say that they will appeal Petrone's decision.

In a statement, the Cook County State's Attorney's office said, "Today, in the matter of the People of Illinois v. Adolfo Davis, we are very pleased with the Court’s decision to reinstate the natural life sentence of this defendant. Based upon the heinous nature of this crime and the fact that Davis was an active and willing participant in these murders, we believe that this sentence is appropriate on behalf of the victims of this crime and their families, as well as the People of the State of Illinois."  


Editor's note: Eight years ago, reporter Linda Paul was reporting for WBEZ on life sentences without parole for juveniles. She came across the case of Adolfo Davis, who’d received the sentence years before as a teenager. She went to visit Davis in prison and set out to understand the circumstances and crime that got him such a sentence. She visited him another time and has kept in touch with his case. This is her update on what has brought Adolfo Davis to his resentencing hearing today.

It’s hard, but let’s try to wrap our heads around this: Up until about 10 years ago it was legal in the United States to sentence a juvenile to death.

The last decade has been kind of a wild ride when it comes to U. S. Supreme Court proclamations on whether juveniles are different from adults when it comes to punishment for the most severe of crimes.

In 2005, in a decision called Roper v Simmons, the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for minors. Then five years later the high court said it’s unconstitutional to sentence a youth to life without the possibility of parole for a crime other than murder.

And in 2012, in Miller v Alabama the Court held that mandatory life without parole sentences for young people under 18 are cruel and unusual punishment.

Mandatory — as in a court had no discretion to choose a different sentence — even if the judge felt that circumstances called for it.

And Miller v Alabama says, when it comes to kids — that’s a big problem. So now mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are outlawed.

That doesn’t mean minors can’t get life without parole. But Miller says the sentence should be rare. Judges are instructed to give great weight to youth-oriented factors like age, home environment, lack of adequate parenting or supervision, and capacity for rehabilitation.

At the heart of Miller is the notion that juveniles are different than adults, more malleable than adults and are able to grow and change over time.

One thing Miller didn’t specify, is whether its ruling was retroactive. Should it apply to past cases? That’s a battle being fought state by state.

Here in Illinois that question got settled last year in a case called People of the State of Illinois v Adolfo Davis. The Illinois Supreme Court said yes, Miller does apply retroactively. That opened the door to resentencing hearings for the 80 people in Illinois who’ve received mandatory life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles.

Now Adolfo Davis’ case is again at the forefront of these evolving legal practices, because today Davis will have one of the first post -Miller resentencing hearings in the state.

All this is of interest to WBEZ, because we’ve been following his case for years.

I first met Adolfo Davis back in November of 2007. I’d driven seven hours to Menard Prison at the southern tip of Illinois to interview a couple of people who received life without parole sentences when they were kids. At the time, I knew next to nothing about their cases.

When I met Davis, the first thing I asked was - what name do you go by?

“Spooncake,” he told me.

Spooncake? Later I found out that’s the name for an old southern dish, a rich gooey chocolate cake.  His family had other nicknames for him including “Catsugar,” an affectionate term concocted by his grandmother, Fannie Davis.

I met Fannie Davis just once. She’s no longer alive, but back then Davis called his grandmother “my heart.” Fannie told me that in the months before Adolfo was arrested, her husband died and one of her twelve children was murdered.

But it’s what happened to Adolfo that particularly haunted her.

“I would see him in my sleep. I would hear him callin’ me. And that would just pull me all the way down to nuthin,’” she told me.

Fannie described Adolfo as a boy who liked to play with any kind of animals, including cats, dogs and fish. When I asked what kind of kid he was, she gave what seemed like a scrupulously honest answer: “Pretty good. I ain’t gonna say he was the best. But he was good.”

When Adolfo was a child, Fannie  worried about his insomnia and his strange habit of knocking his head against the wall until it bled. Reports of this behavior are documented in DCFS records that existed years before the crime that landed him in prison.

At that time Fannie Davis was overwhelmed. She worked all day and came home to a husband who was disabled and bedridden, a son who was mentally disabled, and a daughter — Adolfo’s mother — who was a drug addict and had not made it far enough in school to know how to read or write very well.

“She didn’t care ‘bout nothing I did,” Adolfo said about his mother. “ I went to school dirty. She didn’t care, as long as she got that check once a month,” he said. At trial when asked when Adolfo’s birthday was, court records show that Karen Davis didn’t know.

A criminal career at a young age

In the months after I met Adolfo Davis, I tracked down three of Davis’ early defense lawyers and two of his prosecutors. David O’Connor was one of the original prosecutors at Davis’ trial and he had strong memories of Adolfo as a young teenager.

“Adolfo Davis?” O’Connor asked. “Any time you're talking about a juvenile who started a criminal career at the age of eight and had an armed robbery under his belt by the age of ten, and then at the age of fourteen commits a double murder? Ummm, I think that says quite a bit about that juvenile.” 

It became apparent pretty quickly, that the narrative of Davis’ crime varied widely with which person told the story. And that remains true with the lawyers who are involved in his case 24 years after the fact.

Everyone seems to agree that a turf war was raging between two factions of a single gang on the South Side of Chicago. Gang members were arguing over who could sell drugs where.

After that, the stories diverge.

Defense attorneys tell me that Adolfo Davis himself assumes responsibility for participating in a robbery that turned into a shooting by the two older teenagers he was with.

He was told to act as a look-out, Patricia Soung tells me. Soung is staff attorney at the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy in Los Angeles. She’s also co-counsel for Davis and will help represent him at the resentencing hearing today.

“I believe that he was instructed and peer pressured into a crime that he felt like he couldn’t say no to,” says Patricia Soung.

Prosecutors have long scoffed at the description of Davis as a mere lookout. They claim he participated in a revenge killing after one of the older members of his gang got slapped. And prior to the crime, they say, Davis discussed with his co-defendants, who should live and who should die.

“He was an active participant in the planning, as well as in the shooting and killing,” said Alan Spellberg, supervisor of the criminal appeals division for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.

It’s important to note that these comments from Alan Spellberg are from years ago. Today, his office can’t talk to the media about Adolfo Davis. That’s because Davis’ case is now pending.  But in the past, Spellberg did talk to me about it and he said, “We can’t determine for sure that he fired the gun that killed either of the victims. But we do know from the physical evidence that three different guns were fired at the time.”

Patricia Soung disputes this entirely. “That conclusion is just not supportable,” she says. “The evidence showed that there were two kinds of bullets found in the victims.”

The two murders and two attempted murders took place in a drug house — a South Side apartment where drugs were sold and guns were stashed. Detectives found a third type of bullet embedded in a windowsill at the crime scene. But at trial, Soung says, a ballistics expert testified that it was impossible to determine the age of that bullet.

“We don’t know when that bullet was lodged in the windowsill,” says Soung. “It could have been lodged there any time and there’s nothing to show that it was shot from a gun on the night that the shooting take place in this case.”

Accountability is key

In that conversation with Alan Spellberg from years ago, he pointed out that whether Adolfo Davis actually shot someone that night really isn’t so critical.

“Under the law it didn’t matter who the shooter was,” Spellberg told me at the time. “Because if Adolfo Davis was an active participant in the crime and in the planning,” he said, “he was just as responsible for the murder, whether or not he fired the fatal bullet or not.”

That’s because of this thing in the law called “accountability theory.”

Accountability is the legal theory that a person can be held responsible for the behavior of others if he or she was an active participant in the planning or committing of a crime.

There’s no way to know for sure if Adolfo Davis was convicted via accountability theory. But there are clues that he was.

For one,  instructions on accountability (and other theories) were given to jurors, as they were preparing to deliberate.

Additionally, during deliberation, jurors passed this note out to the judge:

They asked if a defendant actually has to be proven to pull the trigger of the murder weapon during a home invasion? The judge answered: “No, period.” And jurors asked if that person (presumably the defendant) would be legally responsible for the conduct of another who did? The judge answered “yes.”

A Stateville visit

A couple of years ago I went to the sprawling Stateville Correctional Facility to talk to Adolfo Davis for a second time.

Adolfo Davis knew this facility well. At 17, when he was first transferred there from Joliet youth prison, he was the youngest person in the general population, he tells me.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that at the time of his arrest — when he had barely turned 14 — Davis didn’t understand the nuances of accountability theory.

Adolfo Davis told me that after the crime he wasn’t even trying to hide from police. In his young mind he hadn’t done anything seriously wrong.

Police had come to the house looking for Davis and when he got home Fannie, called them.

“My grandmother called the police because I honestly think I didn’t do nothing,” says Davis. “I was like ‘I ain’t kill nobody, I’m cool.’”

Davis pauses. And says, “But it didn’t work out that way.”

It didn’t work out that way because the jury found him guilty.

And it didn’t work out that way in part because of the times. It was the early 1990’s.

“It was a time,” Shobha Mahadev tells me ”when criminologists were promoting the notion that there was going to be a wave of juvenile super predators — that the sky was falling — that we were about to see a generation of young people who would wreak havoc on our cities and put us in fear.“

Mahadev is an assistant professor of law at Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center. She says the super predator idea is now widely considered to have been a myth.

Legislatures across the country were creating laws, Mahadev asserts, that expanded the chance of juveniles being treated as adults in the criminal system.

And that’s what happened to Davis.

The legal event that probably most contributed to Davis’ life without parole sentence was a proceeding called a transfer hearing. Should Adolfo Davis be tried in juvenile court where he could get a sentence of only a few years? Would that be enough time for him to turn his life around? Or should he be tried in adult court?

At the transfer hearing Adolfo Davis’ probation officer testified, saying he favored Davis going into the adult system. He described him as “a very sick child.” He testified that in his opinion a few years in juvenile prison would not be sufficient to handle the severity of his problems.

The probation officer said he believed there would be facilities in the adult system that could offer treatment and rehabilitation to Adolfo Davis. And he saw that as important because he saw Davis as not only a threat to the public, but also a threat to himself.

This probation officer, by the way, had warned DCFS to place Davis in a structured secure facility, but not to put him in a temporary shelter because he would run away and he wouldn’t be able to get the intensive evaluations he needed.

DCFS did exactly what the probation officer said not to do. And Adolfo Davis ran away. That happened just a few days before the murders took place.

Davis’ lawyer tried to ask the probation officer if he thought Davis needed to be in prison for the rest of his life. And she said that if convicted of double homicide, Davis would get a sentence of natural life.

The judge asked if the prosecutor agreed, because if so “we have to get that in the record.”

The prosecutor answered: “No, judge, that is not what the law is.” And the judge said they’d get to it later.

The defense attorney was not able to ask the probation officer if he understood that a transfer to adult court could result in life without parole for Davis.

Davis was transferred to adult court.

The judge at that time observed that in some ways Davis had “fallen through the cracks.”

A chaotic family life 

His grandmother loved him dearly but DCFS records say she couldn’t provide the structure he needed.

“Because my grandmother taking care of everybody else, and everybody got their little checks and buy drugs with it,” Davis says. “People would do what they want with that money. Instead of putting food in the house.”

Davis claims that at an early age he’d pump gas for people in exchange for a bit of change. And he says sometimes at the end of the day he and his friends would go hang out at a Dunkin Donuts or a Kentucky Fried Chicken, to snare food that was being thrown out in the dumpsters.

By 10 years old, Davis had committed his first robbery and he joined a gang at about 11, he says. After that his crime life escalated to stealing cars, shoplifting, burglary, theft, possession of marijuana and armed robbery.

About 10 months before the double murder, Davis used a knife to commit two robberies on a single day. Records say he went through the pockets of his victims and netted $3 in one instance and $2 in another.

Mandatory life without parole

When Adolfo Davis was found guilty in adult court- by statute, the judge had no choice but to sentence him to life without parole.

“Under the statute that I got convicted of, it says if you get convicted of two murders without a reasonable doubt — you get natural life,” Davis tells me. “Now if I would have got convicted of another statute, I might would not have got this time. So that’s the reason why I have been given life. And that’s the reason why so much is being talked about the statute now is because you ain’t giving the judge the discretion to evaluate you and say no, he don’t deserve no natural life."

It gradually dawned on Davis that he really would spend his entire life in prison, and that he would die there – and he became despondent, rebellious, and at times suicidal.

“I honestly felt for years like man, I felt so angry,” says Davis. “Like man I ain’t did nothing. But when I faced reality I was like — I did do something.”

In adulthood, Adolfo Davis says he has come to terms with his responsibility for the role he played in this massive crime. I ask if he ever thinks about the people who got killed.

“Yeah, all the time,” he says. Especially about one of the victims, who he knew well. “Little Keith. man, I had memories with him when we was going to school together. We used to take the lunch trays and at the school, go up on top of the roof and just eat and just kick it.  We used to steal cars together. We used to go to hustle together,’” Davis says. He says Little Keith was one of his best friends.

The beginnings of maturity

Davis began to become more mature and to renounce his gang affiliation in an unlikely place.

After many behavioral tickets for fighting and other disruptive behaviors in prison, at 21 Davis was transferred to Tamms Supermax Prison, just a month after it opened.

That’s where he met licensed clinical counselor Jill Stevens, who was his therapist for over four years. Adolfo Davis was unique she says, in terms of  maintaining a positive attitude in spite of coming from such a “hideous” background. His drive to help other kids not make the same mistakes he had, impressed her.

“It’s so sad to me that this is somebody who.. yeah, he slipped through the cracks of that family,” Stevens says, “and  they were big cracks. Then he slipped through the cracks of social services — and juvenile justice systems.”

Jill Stevens’ view of Davis contrasts sharply with the picture painted of him at a clemency hearing back in April of 2012. Adolfo Davis had asked Gov. Pat  Quinn for a pardon and Assistant State’s Attorney Diane Sheridan argued sharply against it: “Defendant was a full-fledged, gun-toting, planning out, methodical sophisticated beyond his years, cold-blooded killer,” Sheridan said.

Resentencing hearings, case by case

Today is the first of what will be scores of resentencing hearings in Cook County, stemming from the Miller decision. In these cases prosecutors say they will not automatically take the view that each defendant should receive the most severe sentence possible.

Alan Spellberg of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office tells me that they will consider the effect on victims, the effect on the community and all the factors delineated in the Miller decision. “And so we’re going to consider each and every single factor independently and individually in every single case,” Spellberg says.

Meanwhile in this case defense lawyers plan to present a flurry of witnesses who will testify that Adolfo Davis the man, is transformed. He’s nothing like that 14 year old who participated in a gruesome crime almost 25 years ago.

While waiting for a verdict Davis was locked up in what used to be called the Audy Home, Cook County’s jail for kids. He attended school and had three  meals per day At first he acted out a lot. But over time, he thrived. Davis’ lawyers have shown me written evaluations that praise Davis’ progress.

It’s important to note — all that improvement happened prior to Davis even receiving his mandatory sentence of life without parole.

But is proof of rehabilitation enough? Not necessarily. Because penological goals are varied. And sentences need to consider both retribution and rehabilitation. And other factors too.

Northwestern University’s Shobha Mahadev says the Supreme Court has been trying to impress on courts that: “Children are different and their rehabilitation and their ability to grow and change into different people than they were at the time of their childhood is what is paramount here.”

In some ways these resentencing hearings offer a unique moment. Maybe even an unprecedented moment.

Because judges get a do-over. They’re not examining whether rehabilitation is possible. They’re seeing whether it became a reality.