Notorious NYC criminal murdered in prison

Larry Davis stabbed to death by another inmate
February 21, 2008 5:43:55 PM PST
Larry Davis blasted into urban folklore on November 19, 1986, when he shot his way through a squad of police officers who had come to arrest him for five murders.He left this earth in another burst of violence Wednesday, stabbed to death by a fellow inmate at a state prison.

In between, an era ended in New York - one in which bad race relations and distrust of law enforcement made it possible for a feared drug dealer to transform himself into a cult hero simply by standing up to the police.

Davis' death, at age 41, didn't resolve a dispute over his life that began with a bloody escape from a police posse.

At the time he was 20 years old and was wanted for the murders of several fellow Bronx drug dealers. A raid on his sister's apartment, though, turned ugly. As officers burst in, Davis grabbed a pistol and began firing. Six officers were wounded in an exchange of gunfire. Others ran for their lives. Davis slipped away unhurt.

For 17 days he was on the lam before he finally surrendered at a Bronx housing project.

By then, he had become a legend.

Supporters chanted "Larry! Larry!" when he was brought out in handcuffs.

At his trial, his two radical lawyers, William Kunstler and Lynne Stewart, made a remarkable argument: They said he had been pushed into drug dealing by corrupt cops, then targeted by a police death squad when he defied their will and tried to quit.

"You are here today because an incredibly brave young man refused to die," Stewart told the jury.

Davis was never able to produce evidence to corroborate his claims, but it hardly mattered. After 38 hours of deliberations, the jury found he had fired at the officers in self-defense, and he was convicted only of weapons charges.

The victory was just one in an unlikely string. In a separate trial, Davis beat charges that he murdered four Bronx drug dealers. Another jury acquitted him of fatally shooting a drug dealer in Harlem.

Quickly, his court appearances became spectacles, attended by activists and militants who cheered his victories and claimed he was being set up. Sometimes, he appeared in bandages, saying he had been beaten by guards.

Prosecutors finally broke through in 1991, when Davis was convicted of gunning down another reputed drug dealer in the Bronx.

Even then, he seemed unbowed.

"I ain't afraid of you," he told the judge, who sentenced him to 25 years to life.

Defense attorney Stewart, in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, acknowledged her client "was not warm and fuzzy."

"He had very little charm," she said. "But he was what he was, and full marks have to be given to someone who is willing to stand up when he is under fire."

The Davis case, she noted, came at a turbulent time in the relationship between police officers and minorities in the city.

At the time, most of the police force was white. Most of the people being arrested were black or Hispanic; Davis was black.

The New York Police Department also was at the end of a decades-long period during which it had been plagued by corruption and allegations of brutality.

Not long before Davis went on trial, a jury acquitted a white police officer of manslaughter in the death of Eleanor Bumpurs, a 67-year-old black woman who was shot to death when she resisted attempts to evict her from her Bronx apartment in 1984.

"I think there was a sense in the black community," Stewart said, "that the police were just running wild and shooting to kill."

Davis' acquittal in the police gunfight, though, still came as a stunner.

More than 1,500 officers demonstrated after the verdict was announced. Legal pundits complained that juries in the Bronx had become so distrustful of police as to disregard reason.

Asked whether she could get a jury to return the same result today, Stewart said, "I'm not sure about that. I know we live in a very different time."

She should know: Stewart herself was arrested six months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on charges that she helped an imprisoned terrorist communicate with his disciples. She was convicted, but she remains free while the case is on appeal.

Over his years in prison, Davis retained a following among some radicals who continued to insist he had been framed.

New York radio host Bob Fass said he had made Davis a regular call-in guest at his show on WBAI-FM. He was expecting another call from Davis on Wednesday when the news came that he had been killed.

"There was always a bit of the urgent con in his voice," Fass said.

But when it came to his claims of police corruption, "I believed him," he added.

Police investigating Davis' slaying at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility, in Wallkill, N.Y., said it happened in a prison yard at around 7 p.m. as the inmates gathered for evening recreation.

A prisoner named Louis Rosado, serving time for a 1982 murder, was charged with repeatedly stabbing Davis with a piece of metal.

State Police Capt. Wayne Olson said the fight was the result of "a beef between the two of them."

Former Bronx prosecutor William B. Flack, who lost the police shooting case against Davis, said he wasn't surprised to hear how Davis had died.

"He lived a violent life, and he died a violent life," Flack said. "My understanding is that Mr. Davis did not make a lot of friends while he was incarcerated."