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Court of Appeals says Davis was ‘exonerated’ by its reading of statute


A Hennepin County trial court was wrong to deny a man compensation on a theory that he was not “exonerated” when his attempted murder conviction was overturned, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

James Lamar Davis is “exonerated” under the law that provides for compensation of exonerated persons, the unanimous court ruled in a non-precedential decision.

The trial court had ruled Davis was not exonerated because his attempted second-degree murder conviction was vacated based on ineffective assistance of counsel, not evidence of “actual innocence.”

But the appellate court drilled down a little deeper to conclude that one of the bases for the ineffective assistance claim was Davis’ attorneys’ failure to introduce evidence of innocence. But that evidence is still material, the Court of Appeals found.

The case is Davis v. State, written by Judge Matthew E. Johnson. Judges Jeffrey Bryan and Jennifer Frisch joined in the decision.


Background facts

Two men, identified in the ruling only as “K.W.” and “C.D.B.,” were shot in an altercation with three other men near Target Field in Minneapolis at about 3 a.m. on April 12, 2014. C.D.B. was left paralyzed. K.W. first said he could not identify the shooters but later named Davis, along with another man, “J.M.”

Davis was charged with two counts of attempted second-degree intentional murder for the benefit of a gang, a violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.19, subd. 1(1).

Davis filed an affidavit of an alibi—that he was not present at Target Field, that he was at a particular restaurant with friends at the time and that he did not know of the shooting until several hours after it happened.

The case went to trial for five days in February 2015. The state called 11 witnesses, including K.W., who recanted his identification.

To discredit K.W.’s recantation, the jury was showed a video recording of a police interview. In it, the police referred to Davis as the shooter, said that he was a public safety threat, and said that he needed to be convicted to send a message to other gang members. Davis’ attorney did not object.

Former Judge Fred Karasov

Former Judge Fred Karasov

Out of the presence of the jury, District Court Judge Fred Karasov (now retired) said that the video presented evidentiary problems but in the absence of an objection, there was nothing for the court to rule on.

According to a transcript of that hearing, the judge repeated the point for emphasis, saying:

“And so the tape all came in. So, that’s a trial strategy. I’m not criticizing anybody, I’m just making clear that the tape came in without objection. So there’s nothing for me to rule on. Okay?”

The trial counsel agreed.

J.M. directly contradicted Davis’s alibi, but another witness, J.B., said he was with Davis from about 11 p.m. to about 4 a.m. Two other witnesses said they received phone calls or voice-mail messages from Davis from about 2:30 a.m. to 4 a.m.

Davis was convicted. In post-trial motions, Davis submitted two affidavits from witnesses who said that J.M. would lie at trial to convict Davis. His motion for acquittal or a new trial was denied and he was sentenced to consecutive sentences of 186 and 153 months.

The conviction was affirmed on appeal and a pro se petition for post-conviction relief was denied.


Second petition

In 2018, Davis filed a second petition for post-conviction relief, with the assistance of lawyers Julie Jonas, Jon Hapeman and James Mayer from the Innocence Project. Davis argued ineffective assistance from his trial attorney and his appellate attorney.

Judge Paul Scoggin

Judge Paul Scoggin

After a three-day, post-conviction evidentiary hearing, Hennepin County District Court Judge Paul Scoggin filed a 142-page order and memorandum in which he granted the motion and vacated the petition.

Scoggin wrote:

“This Court is persuaded that however well-intentioned and deliberate some of the crucial decisions made by Davis’ trial counsel and appellate counsel may have been, they were, on balance, not the product of effective and reasonably competent representation given the crimes charged and the nature of the evidence possessed by the state and presented during the trial. In this court’s view, the evidence presented at the postconviction evidentiary hearing demonstrated that Davis was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance by both trial and appellate counsel, rendering both the trial and appellate process unfair, undermining confidence in the outcome.”

Scoggin pointed specifically to three things:

  1. “[Counsel’s] failure to object to introduction of the [K.W.] April 14, 2014 interview, allowing that video interview to be admitted as substantive evidence, which contained the sole affirmative substantive evidence in the trial in which Davis was identified as the Target Field shooter as well as including voluminous amounts of inadmissible and highly prejudicial other statements;
  2. “[Counsel’s] failure to seek to strike the testimony offered at trial … regarding [a previous incident] in which the state claimed Davis had also been the shooter; and;
  3. [H]is failure to call two witnesses … to attack the credibility of [J.M.], the State’s key witness who undermined Davis’s alibi defense.”

The county elected not to re-try Davis.

The post-conviction court denied Davis compensation as an exonerated person. It found Davis was not “exonerated” because his convictions were not vacated on grounds consistent with innocence. There was no evidence of factual innocence, the court found.


Grounds consistent with innocence
Court of Appeals Judge Matthew E. Johnson

Court of Appeals Judge Matthew E. Johnson

In the Davis case, the Court of Appeals said it had just one issue to consider: Whether Davis was “exonerated” under the statute, § 590.11, subd. 1(b).

The definition of exoneration is that a judgment is vacated, reversed or set aside on grounds consistent with innocence (emphasis by court).

Elsewhere in the statute, the phrase “on grounds consistent with innocence” means that the conviction was vacated, reversed or a new trial ordered, “and there is any evidence of actual innocence whether it was available at the time of the investigation or is newly discovered evidence.”

The Davis appeal concerns the definition of “on grounds consistent with innocence,” the court emphasized. It then turned to the question of “any evidence of actual innocence.” (Emphasis by court.)

Davis did present alibi evidence from witness J.B. and also affidavits from persons who discredited adverse witness J.M. This presented evidence of factual innocence, the court said.

It rejected the state’s argument that evidence of factual innocence may exist only if a post-conviction court vacated a conviction based on that particular evidence.

The state relied on Freeman v. State, a 2020 Court of Appeals opinion that said:

“To determine whether appellant satisfied the threshold exoneration requirement, we analyze the basis for the order vacating his convictions and granting him a new trial.”

But that, Johnson writes, was simply a prefatory statement and is inconsistent with the statute, which says that evidence of factual innocence may exist whether it is newly discovered or was previously available.

“In other words, an exoneration-compensation petitioner need not show that his conviction or convictions were vacated because of factual innocence,” the court said, remanding the case for further consideration.

   Session/Law logo by Kirk Anderson