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How a Convicted Killer Became My Friend

Tony Davis was 18 when he took another boy's life in a drive-by shooting. Now he's a middle-aged man worthy of redemption.

| Tue Jun. 4, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
The intersection where Tony Davis killed Kevin Reed on July 9, 1990 Oakland Police Department

In early 2010, Tony started talking about his next parole hearing, scheduled for 2012. If only he could persuade the parole board that he was a new man, he'd be free, assuming the governor didn't reverse the decision.

Tony stood out to the public defender because he only wanted to talk about the terrible thing he had done, not what could be done to lessen his punishment.

Even the men and women who had watched Tony pass through the system on his way to prison had detected something different about him. The 250-pound boy with the flat top just seemed out of place. A county probation officer put this in her report: "We want to add that this case seems particularly tragic and that this defendant appears, by hindsight, to truly understand his mistakes and poor judgment." It was doubtful, she wrote, that it would take even 10 years to rehabilitate Tony.

Al Hymer, Tony's public defender, had handled hundreds of murders. Tony stood out because he only wanted to talk about the terrible thing he had done, not what Hymer could do to lessen his punishment. When Hymer wanted to challenge the admissibility of Tony's confession, Tony told him not to bother. He was so remorseful that he took a deal that had him pleading guilty to second-degree murder, even though it meant an indefinite life sentence.

With time, Tony would regret that decision, given the slim odds that he would win parole. All around him, lifers had given up all hope of gaining their release and it was no wonder. Of the roughly 6,000 lifers appearing before the parole board each year, only about 6 percent are approved. But fewer than 1 percent are actually released, because the governor, since 1988, has had the power to overturn the board's decisions. Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed about 75 percent of the paroles granted during his two terms. Gray Davis, his predecessor, reversed 99 percent.  

What's more, Tony had found it all but impossible to pursue the self-improvements the parole board wanted to see. Between lockdowns and teacher turnover, his GED classes were canceled for 8 of his first 12 months at one prison; at another, classes were often suspended due to warring gangs and teachers who would resign and not be replaced for months. "My soul is dead," he wrote after one long stretch of lockdowns. "I been curse since birth…I'm in hell Gary I relly am."

"I wish at times they would have kill me instead of letting me go through this misery."

He would declare 2005—the year he turned 34—the worst of his life, and 2006 wasn't looking much better. "To relly be honest," Tony wrote me that April, "I wish at times they would have kill me instead of letting me go through this misery."

But fate intervened. With good behavior, Tony was deemed eligible for a transfer to Solano, a medium-security prison near San Francisco. It was still prison. His new cell was no larger than the maximum-security ones, and the guards were still plenty mean. "It's like a lot of them come to work every day basically so they can act like bullies," he says. "They have this one lady who works in our building. She's the most miserable—I have never in my life hated someone like I hate her. Hate is a messed up word to use. But this lady, it's like she goes out of her way to mess with people." 

Even so, Solano meant far less violence and a lot more freedom of movement. Tony enrolled in an intensive psychotherapy regimen and a 12-step program. He grew more serious about religion and finally, at age 36, earned his GED—"Davis has worked exceptionally hard to improve himself," one of his instructors wrote. Several years later, he's only a few credits shy of an associate degree. It was at Solano that a fellow inmate introduced him to a woman named Candace, a devout Christian who had three daughters and ran a day care center out of her home. "I sensed right away that he had a good heart," she later told me.

I knew that Tony had a contraband cellphone, but I hadn't asked how he was able to afford it: The answer, it turned out, was bad news.

Tony would need all the support he could get in 2010, when a guard caught him talking on a cellphone—a serious violation. When Tony told me about it, my heart sank: I was, in a small way, complicit. I knew about the phone. It made our conversations easier. And I have to admit that I had turned off the critical part of my brain that would have asked the obvious: How was Tony able to afford it?

The answer was more bad news. Tony, it emerged, had been busted not only for the phone, but also for drug possession. He wasn't using or selling, he insisted, but merely stashing extra product for a dealer he knew. His punishment was 12 months in the hole and a three-year ban on contact visits. More critically, he would have to explain the whole thing to a parole board.

When Tony first started talking about his 2012 parole hearing, he would alternate between anticipation and dread. After nearly 20 years in prison, even the crime for which he was incarcerated seemed like an anachronism: Crack has fallen out of fashion, drive-by shootings are far less common, and the national youth homicide rate is half what it was. Tony committed his crime as a teenager. Now he was 40. Wasn't it time to give him a second chance?

Brian Thiem, the homicide cop who had arrested Tony, thought so. When I tracked him down last year, he pointed out that Tony's crime was "an unfortunate accident based on the impulses and action of kids." He then added, "Twenty years for what he did? God, I say let him out." 

"Twenty years for what he did?" says the cop who arrested Tony. "God, I say let him out." 

For once, politics seemed to be working in Tony's favor. In the spring of 2011, the Supreme Court deemed California's prisons unconstitutionally overcrowded and ordered the state to release more than 30,000 inmates—about one-fifth—by 2014. To me, Tony seemed like the perfect candidate, especially with the state slashing billions of dollars to tame its deficit, yet spending $47,000 per inmate each year. For the first time since his incarceration, I felt excited about his prospects.

"The thing that really hit me is that there's a lot of guys in here that's worse off than I am," Tony told me a few years back. These men came from abysmal beginnings, he said, but now they were among the gentlest, most morally sound individuals he knew. And that gave him hope.

"You just have to have faith and stay strong," he went on, "and not let the situation get you so bitter to where you give up."

Read more: Will the parole board give Tony a break? To find out, download Gary Rivlin's Stray Bullet from The Atavist.

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