LIFE WITHOUT A FATHER
Sep 12, 2002
Life Without Father
Inmates on Texas' Death Row leave behind immeasurable pain and countless
victims--including their own families
On a recent August evening, 16-year-old T.J. Davis retreated to his room,
stretched his 6-foot frame across his bed and stared silently atthe
greeting card that lay on a nearby end table. Finally, he picked it up,
propped it against one of his textbooks and began to write. The A-and-B
Richland High School student wished his father happy birthday,wrote of
having run well in the previous weekend's cross-country meet, of the
sophomore classes in which he was enrolled and of his churchactivities. In
a postscript, he recounted a recent fishing trip with his grandfather.
It was a card he didn't think he'd ever send.
Just weeks earlier, his dad, a man who's never played pitch with him,who's
never taken him fishing or to a ball game, had been scheduled tomake the
45-minute trip from the Texas prison system's Death Row to The Walls unit
in Huntsville, where he was to be executed as punishment forthe brutal
stabbing murder of an Humble man 11 years ago.
The date, as fate would have it, coincided with the first day of the new
school year his son had been eagerly anticipating. Yet young Davis,wishing
to join other family members in a final goodbye visit, had already made
arrangements for an excused absence. Then, just days beforethe execution
inmate Brian Edward Davis received a stay--his second since being
sentenced to die by lethal injection--when the Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals ordered his trial court to conduct ahearing to determine whether
he is, as his lawyers claim, mentally retarded. Earlier in the year, the
U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that executing the mentally retarded violates
the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. And just a
week before Davis' scheduled execution date, Curtis Moore, convicted in
Fort Worth of three 1995 homicides, had been granted a stay for the same
So Davis would live to see his 34th birthday and receive the card sent by
a son whose own life would, at least for the time being, return to
asemblance of adolescent normalcy.
T.J., meanwhile, tries not to think about the possibility that the day
will eventually come when there will be no more postponements, no
moreprison visits, no reason to mail a birthday card. "What I do," the
says, "is keep my mind occupied with other things." He studies hard in the
evenings, reports to school at 6:45 every morning for pre-class practice
with his fellow cross-country runners, takes hisresponsibilities as a
church youth group leader seriously and enjoys anactive social life.
He talks of college and one day becoming a lawyer. Or perhaps a fireman.
But seldom of his incarcerated father. Friends and classmates don't know
that his dad is a convicted murderer. Nor do his teachers.
Recently, he sat mute and angry as fellow students, asked to take astraw
vote on the death penalty, voted overwhelmingly in favor of it. "I just
laid my head down on my desk and didn't say anything," he recalls.
Though he has seen photographs of his dad holding him as an infant and
heard his mother tell stories of Brian changing his diapers and feedinghim
late-night bottles, T.J., only 3 when his father was first incarcerated,
has no firsthand memory of a relationship that doesn't involve a prison
environment. In the years since his first trip as an11-year-old
elementary-school student with no real understanding of the place or why
his dad was there, T.J. has become increasingly comfortablewith the
routine. "I look forward to going down there," he says. "I always look
forward to seeing him."
They talk of the outside world T.J. is growing up in, the father always
warning the son to avoid the pitfalls of his own youth; they talk about
T.J.'s plans for the future, about the Bible. They share jokes.
One of the things the youngster notices as he looks around the visiting
area is the absence of other teen-agers. "I see older people--mothers and
fathers and wives--and a lot of small children," he says, "but hardly ever
is there anyone my age." Is it because of the discomfort so many feel
inside a prison visiting room? Are peer-conscious teen-agers embarrassed
to make such trips? Or are they simply rebelling against a person they
feel has shamed them?
"I don' t know," T.J. says with a shrug. "All I know is that I
love mydad, and if the only way I can spend time with him is to go where
he is, that's what I'll do."
He often makes the trip with his grandfather, an ex-Marine who lives
inrural Tarrant County. "Sometimes the visits are really difficult," says
54-year-old Jim Davis. "From the drive down to the return home, you're
riding an emotional roller coaster." Even before he arrives at the
Livingston prison, Davis knows he'll not shake his son's hand or be
allowed to embrace him. They'll be separated by glass, talking on phones
for a maximum of two hours. In 11 years of twice-a-month visits, the
father and inmate son have never touched. "You try to make it as good
atime as possible," Jim Davis says, "but sometimes it's hard."
The pain he's seen on his grandson's face always lingers with him asthey
drive away from the prison.
Almost without exception, Jim returns home mentally drained and physically
exhausted. The worst, he says, came in May, on the day Brian had first
been scheduled to die. There were tears and laughter, prayers and painful
goodbyes. Brian talked at length with T.J., encouraging him to continue
his education and
make something of his life. "He was trying so hard to be strong for
everyone," says Pam Davis, Jim's wife. "He was doing his best to keep us
upbeat. A scene like that is difficult to describe. Unless you've been
through it--waiting for someone you love, aperfectly healthy person, to be
taken away to
die--you have no idea whatit's like."
"No person should be put through that kind of torture," her husband adds
Watching as his son was shackled and escorted to the van that would
transport him to the Death House, the elder Davis admits, was worse than
any Vietnam combat situation he ever experienced.
Then, just two hours before the scheduled 6 p.m. execution, the U.S.
Supreme Court granted a stay, ordering that the mental retardation issue
be reviewed. Greg Wiercicoch, an attorney with the Austin-based Texas
Defender Service, which files pro bono death sentence appeals, had
successfully argued that Davis' I.Q. was within the clinically accepted
"I never suffered any post-traumatic stress after 'Nam," Jim Davis
says,"but in the weeks after that visit, I got a pretty good idea what it
was all about." Even now he sleeps no more than a couple of hours at a
time. "I wake," he says, "and think about Brian, about where he is, about
the possibility of what might eventually happen to him. It's all so
barbaric." For a time he sought therapeutic help.
Tracy Tucker, T.J.'s mother and Brian Davis' ex-wife, says she completely
lost her voice for a week after that tension-filled day. Her doctor told
her it was a result of the stress; same with the severe chest pains she
suffered for several days.
Today, Jim Davis still searches his mind for something that might
magically remedy the nightmarish situation but always comes to the
realization that there is little he can do. He and Pam, whom he married in
1988, have paid out thousands in attorneys' fees, written letters to high
places, sought help from anti-death penalty organizations. "In the end,"
he admits, "what you do is expect the worst and hope for the best."
T.J. and Jim Davis are what some sociologists call the "other
victims," innocent and unsuspecting family members whose lives have been
indelibly scarred by a criminal act. Traditionally, society focuses
sympathetically on the family and friends of homicide victims but seldom
addresses the ripple effect on those related to the person who committed
the crime. "There is an unjust stigma attached to being related to someone
is in prison for committing a violent act," says Tina Church, a friend of
the Davises and an Indiana private investigator who specializes in the
re-examination of death penalty cases. "Society has adopted a
guilt-by-association mind-set that is terribly unfair."
Houston's Dave Atwood, founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death
Penalty, agrees. "Unfortunately, there's a long-standing tendencyto assume
that the family is somehow responsible for the criminal's actions," he
says. "Certainly, there are a lot of people in prison who are the products
dysfunctional families, abuse and neglect, but not always. I've met many
families of Death Row inmates who are wonderful people, unjustly held
responsible for something they had absolutely no part in."
It is for this reason that Tucker advises T.J. to keep his father's past a
secret. "I know that just as soon as others know what his dad has been
accused of, there will be some parents who no longer want their sons and
daughters associating with him. I don't want him exposed to cruel teasing
"It's a hard thing to explain, and I'm not sure he fully understands it
yet, but that's just how a lot of people are."
And so for years, the sins of the father have remained a family
secret--even though Brian Davis' father, his son and ex-wife are
firmlyconvinced he didn't commit the crime that led him to Death Row.
"My dad has always said he is innocent," T.J. says. "He
wouldn't lie tome about a thing like that."
The story of Brian and Tracy began 18 years ago, filled with the
warmexcitement of teen-age romance. During the 1984 Thanksgiving holidays,
Brian Davis, a handsome, green-eyed 16-year-old, traveled with his parents
from nearby Mineral Wells to the Mid-Cities community of Richland Hills
and met a petite, freckled blonde named Tracy Clark. Also 16, she was
immediately taken by Davis' good looks, sense of humor and country-boy
charm. Never mind that her parents expressed immediate
concern over her spending time with a young man who already had a troubled
history of alcohol and drug use, petty criminal behavior, an openly
rebellious attitude toward school and authority and a questionable I.Q.
that had caused some who knew him to label him "slow."
Today, even Tracy admits that Davis may be retarded. "The truth is, he's
not very bright," she says.
Still, back in her teen years, all the parental warnings fell on deaf ears.
From the moment Brian Davis promised they would "be together
forever," the teen-agers bonded and launched on a reckless journey.
Sitting at her kitchen table, Tracy, now 33, recalls the days and nights
of her youth in stark, candid detail: how she evolved from being an
occasional marijuana smoker to "the white stuff" (cocaine), then hash and
acid, dropping out of
school and living with Davis on the streets of Fort Worth by day and
sleeping in one seedy motel after another at night. Of a
spur-of-the-moment cross-country trip to California in a car she only
learned had been stolen when the driver who'd invited them along was
arrested, and of the marriage proposal Davis made in a letter he mailed to
her while in jail for a probation violation.
At a time when her high school friends were sending out graduation
invitations, Tracy remembers sitting on the edge of her bed at 17, crying
uncontrollably as she addressed birth announcements.
Their too-soon marriage would last just two years. When she
becamepregnant, Tracy had turned away from the rudderless lifestyle,
stopped using drugs and urged her husband to do the same. He couldn't.
Herfather, who had given Brian a job with his construction company, soon
wearied of his unreliable son-in-law being a no-show and fired him. At his
next job in a pizza joint, Brian returned home after only a few hours on
the job. When Tracy asked what had happened, her husband explained that
he'd been fired when he couldn't properly write down the
phone-in orders. Having dropped out of school after completing the eighth
grade, Brian could barely read and write.
Though too young and feckless to realize it at the time, his life was
already spiraling in the wrong direction. Too much Budweiser and Jack
Daniel's, too much time spent prowling the streets in a drugged haze anda
multitude of ill-conceived schemes to support his wife and newborn son and
finance his habits took their toll.
In time, he was arrested again and sentenced to six years in prison for
Tracy thought it was time for her and her infant son to move on. In the
fall of 1988, she filed for divorce. "Back then," she says, "I can
remember seeing Brian cry only two times. The first was when T.J. was
born. Those were tears of pure joy. The other was when I told him I
wasfiling for divorce."
Recently, however, she saw tears again. They came when she visited her
ex-husband as he awaited his fast-approaching execution date.
Even though their lives have taken drastically different courses, that
inexplicable bond, forged as teen-agers, remains. Though married to her
third husband and the mother of two, Tracy Tucker makes no secret of her
ongoing support of Davis. They've never lost touch, corresponding
regularly, talking on
the phone and visiting through the Plexiglas on Death Row more times than
she can recall. "We've always had are lationship," she says. "It's been
that way since that first day we met as kids."
Her current husband, Paul, a heavy equipment mechanic, tries hard to
understand, to not allow her feelings for her ex to damage their four-year
marriage, but struggles with it at times. He declined the Dallas
Observer's request for an interview.
"He, like a lot of people, has told me I need to let go of Brian, to move
on and just focus on my life with him and the children," she admits. "I
know he's right, but I just can't."
It's impossible for her to explain, she says, but the passage of time and
traumatic events--even the horrible crime for which Brian Davis was
convicted and sentenced to die--have failed to dim her feelings.
The death of 31-year-old Michael Foster had been ugly, violent and
According to a videotaped confession given by Brian Davis, he and Tina
Louise McDonald, a woman he'd married just two months earlier, had metthe
mildly retarded Foster in a Houston nightclub at the end of an evening of
drinking and listening to punk-rock music.
Foster, who had suffered brain damage at birth and had no drivers license,
routinely took a bus to the city's glittery Montrose area from nearby
Humble to visit clubs on the weekends. In the early-morning hours of
August 10, 1991, he'd
been offered a ride home by Davis and his wife. According to his
confession, Davis had accompanied the victim into his apartment, expecting
him to pay gas money for the trip. When Foster said he had no cash, the
drunken Davis allegedly stabbed him 11 times, then,with a ballpoint pen,
drew a swastika and the letters NSSH, the initialsof the National
Socialist Skin Heads, on his abdomen. Vulgar neo-Nazimessages were also
written on the living-room wall near where Foster, who was white, lay.
When the body was found three days later, investigators saw that Foster's
nose had also been broken, as if someone had kicked him in the face. The
pockets of his trousers were turned inside out. Several personal items,
including a red leather jacket he'd been wearing whenlast seen, were
Even as the Humble police were still in the early stages of their
investigation, Davis and his wife were already in the Harris Countyjail,
charged with yet another offense--an aggravated robbery that had occurred
just days after the Foster murder. Again, according to Houston police
records, the bar-prowling couple had picked up another man, driven him to
a motel, then robbed and stabbed him. This time, however,their victim
lived. A motel employee, hearing screams, had interrupted the attack. In
short order, Davis and McDonald were arrested.
Soon, members of a local skinhead group and the owner of the bar who'd
seen Davis and his wife leave with Foster on the night of his
deathprovided authorities with enough information to charge the couple
It was in November of 1991 that Brian finally reached an agreement with
investigators, who'd questioned him repeatedly about Foster's death. He
would confess, he said, but only if his wife, whom he insisted had not
participated in the crime, was not charged. Ultimately, it was agreed that
Tina McDonald would receive immunity for any involvement she mighthave had
in Foster's death. Davis, unaware that he'd become the target of a death
penalty prosecution, assumed he would most likely receive a life sentence
that would require him to actually serve no more than 15 years.
As he told his story, Brian Davis--who once described himself to police as
"a time bomb waiting to go off" -- appeared at times to be confused about
critical details, describing a two-edged dagger used to commit the murder
when, in fact, the medical examiner's report indicated the fatal wounds
had been made by a knife with only one sharp edge. His recollection of the
date of the crime was almost two days later than it had actually occurred.
A diagram he drew of the victim's apartment was generally accurate except
that he'd placed the rooms opposite from where they actually were.
Still, in June 1992, a jury, after viewing his videotaped confession,
found Davis guilty of capital murder, and he was sentenced to die. Tina
McDonald, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery in the
othercrime and began serving a 40-year prison sentence in Gatesville. In
accordance with the agreement prosecutors made with her husband, she
wasnever charged in the Foster murder.
Last fall, however, McDonald, now divorced from Davis and no longer
intouch with him, gave a detailed written confession in which she admitted
that she, in fact, had killed Foster. Davis, she wrote, was not even
present at the time of the murder. Before driving to Humble, she said,she
had dropped off her
intoxicated husband at the Houston motel where they were living at the
time. Later, after they'd reached his apartment,Foster began to make
sexual advances toward her. That, she said, waswhat had prompted her to
stab him repeatedly.
Though McDonald would later recant her confession, Davis' parents and
Tracy Tucker believe there is ample evidence to support her confession."
From the day I first visited him in the Harris County jail soon afterhe
was charged," Jim Davis says, "Brian has insisted that he didn't do it.
His story has never changed." Strands of hair found clutched in
hand matched the red-haired McDonald. The victim's jacket andmusic tapes
taken from his apartment were recovered from her car, along with a knife
that had only her fingerprints on it. Additionally, her description of the
crime scene more closely matched what police initially saw.
In a time before DNA became an investigative tool, there was no physical
evidence that directly linked Brian Davis to the crime. Fort Worth
attorney Scott Brown has filed motions asking that the courts place Tina
McDonald on the stand. "Have both sides question her," he suggests,"then
let a judge decide if she's telling the truth or not." Hisrequests have
"There's no question that Tina McDonald was a violent person, an avowed
skinhead with a reputation for always carrying a knife," says investigator
Church. "And she was by far the smarter and more aggressiveof the two."
Harris County Assistant District Attorney Kelly Siegler, who
prosecutedDavis, does not dispute Church's observation but dismisses
McDonald's claim that she alone murdered Foster. "She's always
flip-flopped," says Siegler, who is convinced both Davis and McDonald
participated in thecrime. "You couldn't imagine a worse couple hooking up."
But why, if he didn't commit the crime as he now claims, would Brian Davis
have confessed to it? "He's always told me that he did it toprotect his
wife," Tucker says. "He says he would have done the same forme."
The version of events that Davis told his ex-wife closely parallels what
McDonald described in her confession. He was too drunk to drive, he
toldTucker, and got into the backseat of McDonald's car after leaving the
club. Because he woke the following morning unaware of how he got to
themotel, he could only assume that she'd dropped him off there before
driving Foster on to Humble. McDonald, whom he describes as a "wildwoman"
who always dressed in fatigues and fervently embraced the skinhead
philosophy, had never mentioned what
occurred that night.
Brian Davis had become briefly involved with the local skinheads at
McDonald's urging. And only when she confessed, Tucker says he'drepeatedly
told her, was he aware that she had actually murdered Michael Foster.
"At the time Brian confessed, he had no idea they [prosecutors] would ask
for the death penalty," Tucker says. "He was willing to serve a long
prison term for something he didn't do, just to protect his wife. But he
never expected to be put to death for it."
But what of the second crime, the attempted robbery and stabbing of yet
another victim? Davis again explained away his involvement. The real
assailant, he told his family, had barged into their motel room, stabbed
the visitor and safely fled into the night.
Those family members who believe in him continue to take him at his word.
Today, it appears that Tracy Tucker's life is far removed from her
youthful involvement with Brian Davis. The home she keeps is immaculate
and decorated with collectibles and family pictures. Her husband, she
says, is a wonderful provider
and a good father. She admits that she dotes on her children--T.J. and his
9-year-old half-sister, Brooke--and brags unabashedly of their
accomplishments. "Like any mother," she says,"I worry a lot about the
choices they will make as they grow up." Highon her list of goals is to do
everything she can to see that they avoidthe mistakes she made.
Her other goal is to one day see her first husband set free. It is an
obsession that has made counseling and the use of anti-depressant
medication necessary at times over the years. She stays in touch with
Davis' attorneys, investigator Church and Davis' parents. And she
looksforward to her ex-husband's
rambling letters, filled with inaccurate spelling and poor punctuation,
which always end with his promise to"love you for every."
"During his trial," she recalls, "he telephoned me from the
courthouse every day." And when Brian Davis learned that an execution date
had been set, it was Tracy with whom he first shared the news. At the
time, she was married to her second husband and pregnant with her daughter.
In the years Davis has resided on Death Row, Tucker has visited him at
least once a month, sometimes even more often. At times she's made the
trip alone, sometimes in the company of her son and Davis' family. She has
an album of smiling photographs, each with the white jumpsuit-clad Davis
glass while his visitors pose in the crampedcubicle in front of him. In
some you can see the swastikas tattooed onhis chest and arm, a reminder of
his early prison days when he was amember of a white supremacist prison
Occasionally her husband will drive her to the prison, remaining in the
parking lot during the two-hour visits. On Davis' first execution date,her
parents took her to Huntsville. For a time she went weekly with the
Arlington mother of another condemned inmate before he was executed.
Recently, she made the
trip with Dallas' Patricia Springer, the authorof several true crime
books, who occasionally visits one of Davis' fellow prisoners.
"Tracy's an unusual woman," Springer says. "I think over the
years shehas convinced herself that if she'd not divorced Brian, if she'd
stayed with him, none of this would have happened. She feels a lot of
guilt, convinced that she's at least partially responsible for the
situationhe's now in."
Guilt, justified or imagined, is a common thread that binds Brian Davis'
supporters. "He was never physically abused or anything like that as a
child," Jim Davis says, "but I regret that he had so little continuity in
his life as he was growing up." The elder Davis points to his nomadic
20-year career in the Marines, with stops in Alaska, Virginia, North
Washington and Vietnam, and the fact that he and Brian'smother married and
divorced each other four times.
Nor does he argue against the claims that his son meets the legal
definition of mental retardation. "He was loving and caring as a child,
but he didn't always use good judgment and had great difficulty inschool,"
Davis recalls. Brian, he says, was never able to read well, andwhen he did
attend school he
fared poorly, even in special education classes. He was 16 when his I.Q.
was tested at 74.
The Davises, Tucker and T.J., Springer says, are examples of the
victimization she's often seen during the research she's done over
theyears. "The public has yet to understand that criminal acts create
victims on both sides," she says. "The justice system and society
rightfully show concern for those whose loved one was wronged, while
condemning the families and friends of the perpetrator. They're routinely
given little consideration by prison officials when they go to visit. Over
and over I've seen them treated shamelessly. It happens all the time."
Jim Davis puts it more bluntly: "You're treated like you're a
Still, while the Davises and Tucker and her son agonize over
thestate-ordered fate that awaits Brian, the family of victim
MichaelFoster sees things far differently. "I can't wait until this guy
isfried," Foster's older sister, Pat Kupritz, told the Houston Chronicle
shortly before Davis' execution was postponed in May.
And though she adamantly opposes the death penalty, Tucker can understand
the lingering anger of Foster's loved ones. She's been there.It was in
1985, in Carterville, Georgia, that her older brother, a truckdriver with
three small children, was shot in the back of the head andkilled during a
was 15 at the time," she remembers, "and I had a difficult time
accepting the fact that someone had done that to my brother, to me, to our
family." The suspect later turned himself in, pleaded guilty and served
only a brief sentence.
"I was angry about that for a long time," she admits. Today,
however,she finds comfort in the fact that the family of her brother's
killer was spared the deathwatch she's lived with for a decade, and
thenightmares that still occasionally wake her.
Last spring, when Davis' family traveled to Huntsville, they assumed it
would be their final visit. "It was the most horrible day I've ever
experienced," Tucker says. "We were all convinced it was the last timewe
would see Brian." Funeral arrangements had already been made. Even before
they arrived, Davis had made it clear that he wanted none of themto remain
and witness the moment he was placed on the Death House gurney and the
needles inserted into his arm. "He told us that he didn't want that to be
our last image of him," Jim Davis says.
The stay of execution, however, only bought Brian Davis and his family a
Three months later, as the second execution date approached, T.J. stood in
the kitchen one evening as his mother prepared dinner. "Do you think it is
really going to happen this time?" he asked.
"I didn't know what to tell him," Tracy Tucker recalls.
And so the ordeal continues. Too soon, Tucker fears, the day will come
when her son will ask the question again.