The Death of Larry Davis

Larry Davis, center, in court to face charges of attempted murder in November 1988. (Pool photo, Associated Press)

This is an old story but I only recently found it so I’m re-posting it.

The news that a prison inmate, Larry Davis, 41, was stabbed to death with a homemade shank on Wednesday evening at a state prison in Ulster County will recall for many New Yorkers a South Bronx criminal case that dominated the headlines for years.

On Nov. 19, 1986, six police officers were shot, four of them seriously, while trying to apprehend Mr. Davis, then 20, at an apartment in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. It was at the time the largest number of officers to be wounded in one shooting in the history of the New York Police Department. Mr. Davis was wanted in connection with the killing of four young men found in the Longwood section of the Bronx on Oct. 30.

Today, an inmate at the prison 80 miles north of the city was being questioned in Mr. Davis’s death. Mr. Davis’s violent death will, for many New Yorkers, recall his remarkable journey through the criminal justice system from 1986 to 1991. During that time, he became, for some, a symbol of murderous drug wars and, for others, a symbol of widespread mistrust of the police.

The November 1986 shootout ended in Mr. Davis’s escape and a citywide manhunt that attracted nationwide attention when it widened to include at least five other cities. Attention was also focused on the overburdened criminal justice system. It turned out that Mr. Davis had remained out of jail for 10 months while a hearing on possible probation violations was postponed four times; officials acknowledged that the probation system was “overwhelmed” and that the jail system was in turmoil. The police even had trouble tracing calls Mr. Davis made to tapped telephones.

Cornered in a Bronx housing project after a tense, all-night siege in which a woman and her two young children were held hostage, Mr. Davis surrendered on the morning of Dec. 6, 1986. He was indicted in the slayings of the four young men, who the police said were drug dealers. Even in jail, Mr. Davis continued to make news, damaging his cell during a thwarted escape attempt.

To many observers, Mr. Davis seemed the embodiment of a trend toward lawlessness that had swept New York, but to others, particularly some residents in heavily black neighborhoods of the Bronx and other boroughs, he became something of a folk hero. Mr. Davis’s defenders had little confidence in the Police Department, which had been plagued by accusations of corruption and ineptitude. As the case moved through the court system, Mr. Davis’s defense team — led by William M. Kunstler and Lynne F. Stewart — claimed that he shot the six officers in self-defense and that the police were trying to kill Mr. Davis to prevent him from testifying about officers’ involvement in drug sales.

On July 23, 1987, Mr. Davis stabbed a guard at Rikers Island, but that did little to dampen his popularity in some quarters. On Sept. 10, when he was led into State Supreme Court in the Bronx, more than a dozen spectators broke into applause before being brought to order by court officers. As the date of the trial approached, police actions on drug investigations were as much the focus as Mr. Davis’s own actions. The trial finally opened in December.

Mr. Davis’s journey through the criminal justice system ended in two major victories.

On March 3, 1988, after presenting a defense based almost entirely on the assertion that he had been framed, Mr. Davis was acquitted of all charges in the murders of the four suspected drug dealers 16 months earlier. Then, on Nov. 20, a Bronx jury acquitted him of attempted murder of nine police officers. The jury also acquitted Mr. Davis of six counts of aggravated assault in the wounding of six of the officers, one of whom was hit in the mouth and neck by a bullet and forced to retire. But the jury convicted him of six counts of criminal possession of a weapon. Mr. Davis was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison on the weapons charges.

Mr. Davis’s saga in the court system continued. On Dec. 2, 1989, he was acquitted of fatally shooting a Harlem drug dealer in 1986.

After being acquitted for the murders of five drug dealers, on March 14, 1991, a jury convicted Mr. Davis of firing a shot through the closed door of a Bronx crack den, killing a drug dealer, Raymond Vizcaino, on Aug. 5, 1986. Mr. Davis was sentenced to 25 years to life.

Even in prison, Mr. Davis continued to file appeals, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to obtain freedom.