Keith Davis Jr. was supposed to die. He had been on the phone with his girlfriend when four police officers cornered him into a dimly lit garage in West Baltimore. They had mistaken him for a robbery suspect, and they mistook his phone for a gun. After yelling at him to drop the gun, they fired 44 rounds at him. “Baby, I’ma die,” he told his girlfriend over the phone. Then she heard him ask the officers, “Why y’all tryin’ to kill me?”
It was June 2015 and tensions in Baltimore had just started simmering after the death of Freddie Gray, who in April of that year had suffered a severed spine when officers loaded him handcuffed, shackled, and unrestrained into a police van. For days, Baltimore had been engulfed in protests and confrontations with police — what half the city called a riot and the other half an uprising. Baltimore police were under scrutiny: The state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, had pressed criminal charges against the officers involved in Gray’s death, and the Department of Justice had opened an investigation into the department’s use of force and discriminatory policing. Had he died, Davis would have been the first person killed by city police since Gray, and the 68th in less than a decade.
But Davis didn’t die. Instead he was taken to the hospital, unconscious and in critical condition, where he underwent an emergency surgery that left bullet fragments lodged in his neck and perilously close to his spine. Then, days after the surgery, he was taken to jail.
Davis in the hospital after being shot three times, including in the face, by Baltimore police officers in June 2015.
Photo: Courtesy of Kelly Davis
Nearly four years since that day, bits of shrapnel still in his neck, Davis remains in prison and is now facing his fifth trial stemming from the events of that day. As The Intercept reported at the time, a jury acquitted Davis of the robbery accusation and a host of other charges, but convicted him of possessing a gun, which hadn’t been fired, but was found on top of a refrigerator in the garage where he was shot. Davis and his attorneys maintain that the gun was planted. Then, days after that verdict, prosecutors charged Davis with murder, saying that the gun was connected to the unsolved killing of a security guard named Kevin Jones. They have been trying to convict him ever since. His fifth trial, and fourth for the same murder accusation, was scheduled for early April but has been postponed to the summer. With each trial, new evidence has emerged calling into question both police testimony and prosecutorial conduct in the case. Meanwhile, while Davis went between prison and court, trial after trial, Baltimore saw soaring murder rates and one police and political scandal after the other. And while Davis’s case is known to relatively few in Baltimore, and even fewer outside the city, his ordeal — which will be chronicled in a new podcast launching this week — is reflective of a city plagued by broken institutions and deep distrust in its justice system.
The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to requests for comment and a detailed list of questions from The Intercept. A spokesperson for the State’s Attorney’s Office said the case is “an open and pending matter” and declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, which is representing Davis in his fourth murder trial, also declined to comment.
Had Davis died in the shooting, people in the city might have rallied around his name as they had for Freddie Gray, but police would have easily been able to dismiss his death, as they so often do in these cases, as the “justified” killing of an armed suspect.
“They wanted him to die,” said Larry Smith, an 18-year veteran officer, who worked with the Baltimore police’s internal affairs unit at the time of Davis’s shooting. Smith, who left the department two years later and has since been an outspoken critic of its culture and practices, said that he wasn’t directly involved in the investigation, but that several of his supervisors and colleagues in the unit had “expressed the hope that Keith would die.”
“The mentality behind that was that it would be a lot easier if he was dead,” Smith told The Intercept. “Because then he wouldn’t be able to tell his story. There would be no alternate version of events; there would only be the police’s version of events.”
“This Is Not a Prosecution. It’s a Persecution.”
Police and prosecutors’ initial version of the events is that on the day he was shot Davis had robbed a cab driver and then fled the scene, pointing and firing a gun at a group of officers who had chased him. Prosecutors filed 15 charges against him relating to the incident, but dropped the firearm discharge when it turned out the gun in question had been empty and all the shots fired had come from police. Then, months into the case, they tacked on a new charge: firearm possession by an individual with a felony conviction.
The officers at the scene, who against department policy were allowed to go months without giving statements about the incident, presented contradictory accounts in court, disagreeing on details like who had arrived at the scene first and who had cuffed Davis. There were other serious inconsistencies: The cab driver had said the robber had pointed a silver gun at him; the one recovered in the garage was green and multicolor. Davis’s fingerprints on the gun were partial and according to his attorneys, inconsistent with the firm grip on the weapon he would have needed to point it at anyone. Most damning perhaps was the cab driver’s description: He said the robber was a man wearing shorts, a short-sleeve shirt, and plaited hair. The robber was holding the gun in his right hand, but the driver didn’t notice any tattoos. That day, Davis was wearing long blue jeans and a tank top. His hair was cropped short and his arms are covered in tattoos. At trial, the driver got up from the witness stand to take a better look at Davis, then said flatly, “To my recollection, that don’t look like him to me.”
The jury in the case seemed unconvinced by prosecutors’ account and acquitted Davis of the robbery and of carrying or wearing a gun. But there was a gun in the garage, and Davis had a felony record, which was enough to convict him of the one count prosecutors had tacked on at a later date. Davis was sentenced to the required five-year minimum.
That’s when prosecutors doubled down. Within days, they said the gun had been used in Jones’s murder on the day Davis was shot. Davis and Jones didn’t know each other, and there was no clear motive for the killing. Davis had an alibi witness and another witness described an older suspect at the scene of the murder. Prosecutors, for their part, said that cellphone records put Davis in the vicinity of the crime scene. And then there was the gun, which Davis had already said was planted on him, but remained the main piece of evidence against him.
Davis’s first murder trial, in May 2017, ended in a mistrial after all but one juror voted to acquit.
Still, prosecutors pushed to retry him, and at his next trial, in October 2017, they produced a last-minute, surprise witness, David Gutierrez, an inmate from Texas who testified that he had met Davis in jail and that Davis had admitted to the murder when visiting his cell to buy alcohol from Gutierrez’s cellmate. This time, a jury convicted Davis of second-degree murder, acquitting him of the first-degree murder charge.
On the day of the verdict, Marilyn Mosby tweeted “Victory” from her official account.