Greg Davis, who has tried three death penalty cases in the three years he has been a McLennan County prosecutor, likely has put more people on death row than any active Texas prosecutor.
There are no official records kept about which prosecutor has sent the most defendants to death row. The numbers, in large part, are anecdotal. But calls to longtime prosecutors and district attorneys’ offices in Harris, Dallas and Tarrant counties seem to bear out the fact that the 62-year-old Davis — who put 20 defendants from Dallas, Collin and McLennan counties on death row — is the state leader among current prosecutors.
Davis has prosecuted 22 death penalty trials, including one woman he tried twice. He has only failed once to obtain a death sentence from a jury.
Davis and McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna declined to be interviewed for this story, but when a defense attorney last month said Davis was seeking death for inmate Carnell Petetan Jr., Davis politely explained to the jury that he was only seeking justice and that the evidence in the case would lead the jury to what he called “the proper verdict.”
Petetan, who shot and killed his estranged wife in Waco in front of her young daughter and two other eyewitnesses, was transferred to death row two weeks ago.
Reyna explained that Davis declined an interview out of concern that anything he might say could be used by appellate attorneys or inmate writ writers in their efforts to help defendants overturn their convictions.
In an emailed statement, Reyna called Davis an incredible asset to the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office.
“His presence in the office has been an integral part in both achieving justice for victims and helping other prosecutors to learn from his vast prosecutorial experience,” Reyna wrote.
But the soft-spoken, low-key Davis is not one to seek publicity or ego stroking. He quietly goes about his business in a methodical way, rarely raising his voice.
Toby Shook, who worked with Davis in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, said Davis could have made a lot of money as a criminal defense attorney but chose instead to be a prosecutor “because he truly believes in doing justice.”
“Greg is a very well-respected prosecutor,” Shook said. “He has this personality that connects very well with juries. They trust him.
“Greg has an engineering background, and he builds his cases like an engineer. He lays them out in a very logical manner and builds air-tight cases.”
A Garland native, Davis went to work for longtime Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade in 1977 and worked there five years before going into private practice in Dallas.
He returned to the Dallas County DA’s office in 1992 because he missed prosecuting. He, Shook and two other prosecutors took on the role of trying primarily capital murder cases in 1994.
Davis has taken a similar role since coming to McLennan County in February 2011. He has served as lead prosecutor in three death penalty cases and has been involved in four other major trials, including one in which the defendant pleaded guilty to a life sentence at the last minute. Before Davis, McLennan County had not sought the death penalty since the 2008 punishment retrial of Billie Wayne Coble.
Shook and Davis convinced a jury in 1997 to send the first woman from Dallas County to death row. Darlie Routier was convicted of stabbing two of her sons to death at her home in Rowlett. The case brought nationwide publicity and the two prosecutors drew heat from the media spotlight, especially as Routier, a pretty homemaker, her family and others asserted her innocence.
“Greg doesn’t get flustered or frustrated,” Shook said. “He is cool and calm and he just has a calming manner about him that makes juries naturally trust him and follow him. He is very effective in those types of cases. He is just a solid guy and a solid prosecutor.”
Shook, 56, who entered private practice in 2006, said he prosecuted cases that resulted in 21 defendants being sent to death row. He noted that while there may be a former or retired prosecutor who put more defendants on death row than Davis, he thinks Davis has sent more inmates there than any current prosecutor.
Shook is serving as special prosecutor in a Kaufman County capital murder case where a former justice of the peace is accused of killing a DA, the DA’s wife and a prosecutor. Shook is seeking the death penalty.
Lynn McClellan, who retired in 2008 after 27 years with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, sent about 30 killers to death row, said Shook, who said McClellan quoted that figure to him at a recent legal seminar.
Fewer cases for death
Dallas and Harris counties tried many dozens of death penalty cases in the 1970s and ’80s. But the number of criminals being sent to death row has decreased significantly since a law change in 2005 gave prosecutors the option of life without the possibility of parole in capital murder cases.
There are 287 people on Texas’ death row. The state executed 16 in 2013.
“I think we are seeing a lot more introspection and discretion on the part of prosecutors these days when it comes to the decision to seek the death penalty since Texas adopted the alternative punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole,” said Kristin Houle, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “I think more prosecutors have opted not to seek death, and there are just a few remaining holdouts.”
Half of Texas death row inmates since 2008 have come from Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, Travis, Brazos and McLennan counties, she said.
Five people have been sent to death row this year, including Carnell Petetan Jr. whom Davis tried. Nine men were sent last year, including Davis’ trial of Albert Leslie Love Jr. of Waco. Nine — including Waco’s Rickey Donnell Cummings, sent there by Davis — went in 2012. Eight were sent in 2011 and nine in 2010.
“The sheer cost at the trial level has also changed the minds of many prosecutors around the state to seek the death penalty,” Houle said. “They have found that it is not the best use of the county’s resources, especially in smaller counties. Studies have shown that it is two to three times more expensive to seek the death penalty than not to seek death.”
Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said his agency does not keep statistics on which prosecutors have tried the most cases or put the most inmates on death row.
“The numbers of death penalties returned are certainly down. A record like that means Greg has been doing his job for a long period of time. If you are the chief felony prosecutor in murder cases, you are going to have those cases,” Kepple said. “The fact that they rely on him says a lot. Capital murder cases take a tremendous amount of work and energy, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for a person who would want to go to the well that many times.”
Longtime Waco defense attorney Russ Hunt Sr., who has defended seven death penalty cases and had three clients executed, has been on the other side from Davis in two capital murder cases and an aggravated robbery case in the past three years.
“Greg is a total pro,” Hunt said. “I have a lot of respect for Greg. He continues to impress me every time I go up against him. He is very professional at what he does and knows what he is doing.”
Seven await decisions
One of Davis’ biggest cases was John Chavez, a paroled murderer who went on an eight-month killing spree that included 12 victims. Five of them Chavez killed in one day. Two of his victims were men with whom he had argued about a parking spot. He shot them both in the head.
“Chavez was, in my opinion, a pure psychopath who derived joy from his murder spree,” Davis said in a summary of his capital murder cases he provided to the Tribune-Herald.
Chavez, who earned the nickname “The Thrill Killer,” was executed in 2003.
Davis also prosecuted George Rivas, the ringleader of the so-called Texas 7, a group of inmates who escaped from prison and killed an Irving police officer on Christmas Eve 2000. He was executed two years ago.
Seven capital murder cases are pending in McLennan County. The DA’s office has yet to announce whether it will seek the death penalty against any of those defendants.