The sun had just begun to set over the Land O’ Lakes Detention Center in Pasco County when inmate James Davis decided to call his sister.
For the past four days, the 56-year-old inmate’s usual jumpsuit had been traded for a boxy, mismatched khaki suit deemed more appropriate for a first-degree murder trial 12 years in the making. Day after day, Davis donned that same suit and sat silently in Judge Gregory Groger’s nearly empty Dade City courtroom, studying the faces of the jurors tasked with deciding whether he’ll live or die for his alleged crime — killing and dismembering the man behind many of the popular 1980s-era “ThunderCats” comic books: cartoon author Stephen Perry.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If found guilty, Davis faces the death penalty.
Two weeks had been set aside for the trial, but state prosecutors were on track to present their case in less than one. They presented a grisly parade of roughly 200 pieces of evidence to the jury which they said proves unequivocally that on May 10, 2010, Davis shot and killed Perry in the Zephyrhills home where they had lived as roommates for less than five months.
They had transaction records, supermarket receipts and surveillance footage showing Davis using Perry’s bank cards days after the writer’s death. They had all of Perry’s personal belongings — found stashed away in Davis’ bedroom, alongside how-to articles with titles such as “The Home-made Hitman” and “How to make your own silencer.”
But most of all, they had an avalanche of forensic evidence covered in bloody footprints, fingerprints and DNA samples they said all led back to James Davis. The likelihood those samples could have come from anyone else? About 1 in 380 quadrillion — more than the Earth’s entire population, Pasco State’s Attorney Manny Garcia told the jury.
In his phone call to his sister Wednesday evening, Davis told her the prosecution said it would rest its case Thursday morning, turning the court’s attention over to his defense. But that wouldn’t take long, either, he said.
The defense didn’t plan to present a case. They didn’t need to, he said.
“What he told his sister, from my understanding, is that he will be coming home on Friday. That he spoke to his defense counsel and there is no evidence against him and they advised him that he didn’t need to testify,” Garcia told the judge before the jury was brought in Thursday morning.
To the prosecutors, Garcia told the judge, the phone call indicated that the inmate’s attorneys, Anne Borghetti and Jenna Finklestein, were simply setting their client up to appeal the trial’s outcome at a later date under Florida’s statutes on “Motions to vacate, set aside or correct sentence.”
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“You have to admit it, I can’t imagine the defense counsel saying ‘there’s no evidence against you’ when there’s a huge mountain of evidence sitting right over there,” Garcia said.
But Borghetti defended her decision to keep Davis off the stand — a move that not only saved her client from a brutal cross-examination, but also denied the jury from hearing any narrative or possible motive behind the brutal slaying.
In fact, jurors never got to hear the story behind Stephen Perry’s killing. Most of those details never rose above the level of hearsay, and they have been deemed inadmissible in court through more than 100 motions filed during 12 years’ worth of legal wrangling.
Instead, they only have the evidence left scattered throughout Hillsborough and Pasco counties to guide their deliberations. And while prosecutors say that’s more than enough to finger Davis as Perry’s killer, Borghetti counters that evidence is all circumstantial.
The defense did end up presenting a case to the jury on Thursday. Borghetti called a single witness to the stand — a retired fingerprint analyst for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who testified he couldn’t link Davis’ prints to the black garbage bags used for dumping Perry’s body parts, bottles of bleach purchased to clean up blood or the reciprocating saw experts say was used to slice through Perry’s body.
But it remains to be seen if the cold forensic facts gleaned from the saw will be enough to make jurors forget about the one witness presented by state prosecutors who did speak to the horror of the crime — if only for a few minutes.
Donald Carmichael admitted he had taken prescription pills to counter his anxiety before he testified on Tuesday, and he spoke in a slow, slightly slurred manner. He had trouble recognizing Davis in the courtroom, but when he was handed a stack of photographs that were taken by Zephyrhills police of his DeWalt “Sawzall” a flood of memories made Carmichael’s face flush bright red.
“Oh my God, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen ‘em,” he said, shuffling through the stack before pushing the photos to the side and covering his eyes with his hands.
The saw was brand new, still in its carrying bag when Carmichael loaned it to Davis, a known handyman in their Zephyrhills neighborhood. It took several weeks and multiple phone calls to get the saw back, Carmichael said. And by the time the saw was returned — brought to his house by Davis’ cousin — Perry had gone missing.
Days passed before Carmichael saw a news report about Perry’s slaying. Then he remembered how Davis was driving Perry’s blue van when he borrowed Carmichael’s tool — the same blue van that authorities say was found soaked in blood and abandoned in the parking lot of a Quality Inn motel in Tampa, feet away from a dumpster that held Perry’s severed arm. Davis had been renting a room at the same motel when the arm was found. And when Perry’s torso turned up in a vacant lot on Foamflower Boulevard, Carmichael said he and others in the neighborhood remembered that Davis used to live in a home on the same street.
Suspicion turned in Carmichael’s gut as he went out to his shed to get the saw Davis had borrowed. When he opened the back, he “got nearly knocked over by the smell,” Carmichael said.
Bits of decomposing flesh still were stuck in the blade and wedged into nearly every crevice of the tool that medical examiners say hacked through Perry’s bones.
“And oh my God, you don’t want to know what that smell was like,” he said. “The stuff that was in there ... my God, it was awful.”
Jurors will return to the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City at 8:30 a.m. Monday to hear closing arguments and jury instructions before their deliberations begin. If found guilty of premeditated first-degree murder, jurors have been asked to remain available through May 27 for a possible penalty phase of the trial.