A Jamaican accent and anguish over the death of a friend may have spared a convicted Broward County murderer from a lethal injection.
The Supreme Court of Florida has vacated a death-penalty sentence for Ralston “Jay” Davis Jr., who instead will serve life in prison for the shooting deaths of Myosha Proby, Ravindra Basdeo and Carlos Jones.
The high court ruled that Davis, 28, of Sunrise, did not act in a “cold, calculated and premeditated manner” when he ordered Proby, 28, to her knees and fired 23 bullets from an AR-15 assault rifle into her body. It also found several mitigating factors that the justices said rendered Davis’ death sentence too severe, including his role in a fatal stabbing at Piper High School.
Davis, who unsuccessfully waged an insanity defense in his 2009 trial, is a Piper High graduate who used to run with the Wood Boys, a gang that assembled in the Driftwood Apartments complex near Fort Lauderdale. Davis was with Courtney Carroll — a Piper running back and fellow Wood Boy — in 2002 when another student stabbed Carroll in the chest with a screwdriver during an after-school fight. Davis tried to perform CPR, but Carroll died in his lap.
“Dr. (Michael) Brannon testified during the penalty phase that this incident likely contributed to Davis’ mental deterioration in the period leading up to the capital offenses,” the judges wrote in their July 3 opinion. “The record demonstrates that this case is not among the most aggravated and least mitigated of first-degree murders. On that basis, we vacate the sentence of death.”
Although Courtney’s stabbing happened three years before Davis went on the killing spree that claimed the lives of Proby, Basdeo and Jones, Davis testified in the trial of his friend’s killer just weeks before his Dec. 2, 2005, rampage. Court documents show that Davis was upset that he wasn’t a stronger witness against Kern O’Sullivan, who served six years of probation in exchange for a manslaughter plea.
In taking Davis off Death Row, the Supreme Court also considered his mental condition at the time of the shootings, concluding that he was suffering from a temporary psychotic episode.
During trial, prosecutors argued that Davis’ psychosis was drug-induced, while defense attorneys maintained that Davis did not abuse drugs. They battled over a video statement Davis made to his parents in a Broward Sheriff’s Office interrogation room. The Davises interspersed their native Jamaican Patois into the conversation, which led to confusion over several portions of a transcript.
On a state-prepared transcript provided to jurors, Davis is quoted talking with his parents about Taser deaths in cocaine users: “You know what? You may be right. That’s why they did that — ’cause I have cocaine in my system. That’s why they tase me three times — I mean, I shake it off, like this.”
But Davis’ attorneys said their client’s accent was misunderstood — and he never admitted to using drugs.
A defense transcript reads somewhat differently: “You know what? They may be right. That’s why them dead off — ’cause they have cocaine in their system. That’s why they tase me three times – I mean, I shake it off, like this.”
The Supreme Court noted that Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Levenson erred in allowing the transcript into evidence during Davis’ trial but that it did not affect the jury’s guilty verdict.
Paul Petillo, a Palm Beach County assistant public defender who represented Davis’ appeal, said the court’s ruling validated several of the arguments he made in his motions.
“Of course, the state’s view was that the psychotic episode was drug-induced,” Petillo said. “But it was my position in the brief that the state misinterpreted my client’s Jamaican English — ‘dead off’ is a well-known Jamaican expression, but it is wholly unfamiliar to American ears.”
Davis, who turns 29 next month, is serving his sentence at the maximum-security Florida State Prison in Raiford. His parents, who ran a Fort Lauderdale ministry, said they had no idea what caused their son to snap, but his mother testified at trial that Davis suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of caregivers while growing up.
In the days before the slayings, Davis’ unusual behavior drew suspicions of drug use from his parents and prompted his dad to kick him out of the family home.
Davis had known Proby only a short time, describing her as his “big sister,” when he stormed into her Lauderhill apartment and shot her, execution-style, while a mutual friend cowered nearby.
“Big sister she betray me, so I murdered her,” Davis said to his parents on the police videotape. “I was just on a mission, just taking care of business.”
From Proby’s apartment, he drove to an Exxon station by the Swap Shop, where he also executed Basdeo, 29, a stranger Davis thought had disrespected God by passing Davis in traffic. He tapped Basdeo’s car window, ordered Basdeo to open his mouth, and fired a single bullet from his semiautomatic rifle.
Jones, 26, had just bought snacks to take to the drive-in theater when Davis forced him to the ground and shot him multiple times.
A Broward jury in 2009 convicted Davis of first-degree murder in all three cases. In 2010 the judge took the jury’s recommendation to sentence Davis to death for the murder of Proby and to life in prison for the murders of Basdeo and Jones.