On July 8, 2021, the Supreme Court of Florida decided the case Donald H. Davidson Jr., v. State of Florida. The basis for this case is Davidson’s appeal of his prior conviction of first-degree murder and sentence of death.
The Facts of the Case
In 2014, Davidson was released with supervision from prison and was required to wear an ankle monitor that tracked his movement. In December of that year, he left his job early claiming he felt sick and called his stepbrother to pick him up. He was picked up and dropped off at the home of longtime friends, Roseann Welsh and Michael Scott. At the time, only Welsh was present in the home. After entering the home and hanging out with his Welsh for a while, Davidson asked Welsh to show him a videogame in her bedroom. While in the bedroom, Davidson put Welsh into a chokehold and forced her onto her bed, stripping and attempting to rape her. During this attempt, the Welsh’s 10-year-old child, M.S. arrived home from school. Once Welsh heard the school bus, she broke free from Davidson’s grasp and ran into the adjoining bathroom. Davidson followed her in and removed a shoelace from a shoe in the bathroom. He used the lace to strangle Welsh in the shower until she fell unconscious. He put her onto the floor, realized she was still breathing, and stabbed her in the throat three time with a buck knife.
After slaying Welsh, Davidson encountered M.S. in the kitchen. He grabbed her neck, threw her onto the couch, and start to sexually assault her. During this assault, he told her to strip naked and perform oral sex on him. She complied, and while this assault was going on, M.S.’s 13-year-old brother, R.S., returned home from school. Davidson met him at the front door of the home and told R.S. that his sister and mom weren’t at home. R.S. was wary but left home to search for them.
After R.S. left, Davidson removed his ankle monitor, forced M.S. into the family’s car, and drove away. While driving away, he threw his cell phone out of the window and told M.S. to duck when passing by vehicles. In the car, Davidson sexually assaulted M.S. again by touching her vagina, forcing her to perform oral sex on him, and placing his penis around her anus and vagina. Eventually, he drove back toward M.S.’s home and allowed her to exit the car. Then, he began driving to Georgia.
R.S. failed to locate his mother and sister, so he returned home. While looking though the house, he found his mother dead in the bedroom. He called 911 and reported her death. Police responded and began an investigation, searching the home for evidence, speaking with Scott, and interviewing R.S. Based on the results of their investigation, the police issued a BOLO for the stolen car.
While still at the home, the police saw M.S. approaching. They took her to the station where they interviewed her. She said that she heard her mother yell something about calling 911 when she arrived home and told them about the sexual assault, both in the home and the family car. M.S. was then interviewed by a child protective investigator where she again told them what had happened.
On December 2nd, the police found the stolen car and took Davidson into custody. Davidson was taken into an interview room, read his Miranda rights, and waived them. Davidson confessed to raping Welsh, murdering Welsh, sexually assaulting M.S., and kidnapping M.S. in the interview. He said he had been on cocaine at the time.
The State charged Davidson with 9 crimes, including first-degree murder, multiple counts of sexual battery on a child 12-years-old or younger, and kidnapping. The State sought the death penalty based on the first-degree murder charge.
Davidson filed several motions, some of which challenged the constitutionality of the prior-violent-felony-aggravator. He said that this aggravator was overboard and vague, making the death penalty statute unconstitutional. The trial court rejected this argument.
At another hearing Davidson expressed intent to plead guilty to the crimes and waive the penalty-phase jury. The court accepted the guilty plea. At the penalty-phase hearing, the State introduced exhibits and called witnesses. The defense presented mitigating evidence that Davidson was low functioning, under the influence of a mental or emotionally disturbance due to brain damage and cocaine use, and traumatized from a childhood of abuse, neglect, and violence, resulting in developmental disorders. Davidson also presented a written statement expressing remorse and regret.
At the sentencing hearing, the court pronounced a sentence of death for the first-degree murder of Welsh, finding five aggravating factors proven beyond a reasonable doubt:
The murder was committed while Davidson was still under felony imprisonment.
Davidson had prior violent and sexual felonies alongside the sexual batteries and kidnapping of M.S.
Davidson attempted sexual battery upon Welsh before murdering her.
The murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.
Davidson committed the murder after already being designated a sexual predator.
Regarding mitigating circumstances, the trial court rejected Davidson’s substantial-impairment mitigator, but did find that Davidson committed the murder under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance exacerbated by his voluntary use of cocaine. They recognized his chaotic upbringing, mental-health, and poor scholastic performance as non-statutory mitigating circumstances. However, the court found that the aggravating circumstances substantially outweighed the mitigating circumstances, warranting a capital sentence. Davidson then appealed to the Supreme Court of Florida.
The Issues Raised
Whether the trial court committed fundamental error by not finding beyond a reasonable doubt that sufficient aggravating circumstances existed that outweighed the mitigating circumstances.
Whether the trial court erred in rejecting Davidson’s substantial-impairment mitigator and assigned too little weight to the non-statutory mitigating factors.
Whether the prior-violent-felony aggravating factor is unconstitutional.
Whether Davidson’s guilty plea was knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily made.
Florida Supreme Court’s Ruling
Davidson’s first issue was declined with the Court finding that their precedent is consistent with their decision. Davidson’s mitigation challenges were declined because he took several logical steps to conceal his murder of Welsh and flee. Additionally, the Court found that they assigned the appropriate weight to his non-statutory mitigating circumstances because the circumstances had little compelling mitigating value in light of the evidence, and it is up to the trial court to assign weight to the circumstances. In regard to Davidson’s challenge of the prior-violent-felony aggravator, the Court found that prior caselaw has consistently rejected overbreadth and vagueness challenges to the aggravator. The Court reviewed, without Davidson’s insistence, the voluntariness and sufficiency of his guilty plea. Because Davidson was advised of the sentencing options, had the right to be represented by a lawyer, call and confront witness, stated that he was making the decision “based on [his] own free and voluntary will,” and the evidence of guilt was so overwhelming, the Court concluded that his guilty plea was voluntarily and knowingly given. The Court affirmed Davidson’s sentence of first-degree murder and capital punishment.
Tallahassee Murder Defense Attorney
As you can see by this recent Florida Supreme Court decision, a murder conviction in Florida can result in the loss of freedom, money, and even the defendant’s life. If you or a loved one has been charged with murder in the state of Florida, contact an aggressive and experienced Tallahassee criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case and explore your options. Don Pumphrey and the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm are experienced in defending against murder charges and can ensure that you or a loved one are given a zealous and complete defense. Call (850) 681-7777 or send an online message today for an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.
Attorney Don Pumphrey, Jr. is a former prosecutor, former law enforcement officer, and a successful and experienced criminal defense attorney. Don has achieved over 100 not guilty verdicts at trial and over 2,000 dismissals.