Two decades ago, amid one of the darkest chapters in the city’s history, a flurry of scandals brought the New Orleans Police Department to its knees.
Felonies committed by police officers became so commonplace they could have been counted as a separate category in the yearly crime data. But the case of Len Davis emerged as an enduring emblem of police corruption, shattering the public trust and scarring the NOPD beyond measure.
Even in 1994, a bullet-riddled year in which the city saw an unprecedented 421 murders, the depth of misconduct exposed by a monthslong FBI probe met with shock and revulsion. Davis, a patrolman known as “Robocop” and “the Desire Terrorist,” had been recorded on a federal wiretap ordering the Oct. 13, 1994, execution of Kim Groves, a 9th Ward mother who a day before her death reported Davis and his partner for police brutality.
As appalling as the killing was — Groves died, in the words of prosecutors, “like a dog in the street” — it was only part of the reckoning Davis faced. The shooting, carried out by hit man Paul Hardy, coincided with a high-stakes drug sting that ensnared Davis and several of his rogue colleagues, an investigation that raised lingering questions about whether the FBI could have prevented Groves’ murder.
Those concerns, among other legal challenges, resurfaced in a 2012 motion for a new trial that is still pending in U.S. District Court, a filing that delayed Davis’ execution indefinitely. A civil lawsuit brought by Groves’ family against the city has been stalled all the while as Davis exhausts his appeals.
Twenty years after Groves’ murder, the Davis case is often cited as a harbinger of the civil rights abuses by NOPD officers that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the long-standing dysfunction that culminated in a federal consent decree intended to overhaul the Police Department and reshape its culture.
Within just four months of Davis’ indictment, another notorious police officer, Antoinette Frank, killed an off-duty colleague in a triple-murder and robbery at a Vietnamese restaurant in New Orleans East.
“I think (the Davis case) just epitomized the fact that, at that point, New Orleans was arguably the worst police department in the country,” said Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, who studied the NOPD a few years after Davis’ arrest.
Even after the raft of reforms ushered in by then-Superintendent Richard Pennington, Walker said, “I just had the impression that this was a department that was incapable of reforming itself.”
Davis, 50, remains as defiant today as he was in 2005, when he acted as his own defense attorney in a bizarre penalty retrial that, like his 1996 trial, resulted in a death sentence. In a 23-page letter to The New Orleans Advocate from prison in Indiana, Davis maintained his innocence while bemoaning the oft-raised doubts about his mental competency.
“It’s insulting and degrading,” he wrote. “Not to mention it maligns my manhood.”
Even as Davis accused the federal government of an elaborate cover-up, he apologized for celebrating the news of Groves’ death in 1994, jubilant cries that were captured on the FBI wiretap. In his letter from federal death row in Indiana, he wrote that he also would speak harshly “about criminals and people killed who engaged in criminal activity.” But, he added, that “does not justify my desensitize(d) comments made about Ms. Groves when I learned she had been killed.”
“She indeed was loved by her family regardless of what I stated about her in 1994,” Davis wrote. “My profanity-laced comments were wrong and hurtful, I’m sure, to her loved ones.”
Jasmine Groves, who turns 32 on Tuesday — the age her mother was when she was gunned down at Alabo and North Villere streets — was unmoved by Davis’ professed contrition.
“You’re still not owning up to getting her killed,” she said last week, referring to Davis. “You’re apologizing for the words you used, but you used them because you got her killed.”
An era of violence
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael McMahon told jurors at the close of Davis’ trial that Groves’ murder “should not have happened in the United States of America.” That argument could have applied equally to the broader bloodshed that befell the city in 1994, when killing was literally more common than the sun coming up.
“We were really knee-deep in murders,” recalled Jimmy Keen, a former commander of the NOPD’s Homicide Division. “We just chased our tails, going from one murder to the next.”
As the violence intensified, the Police Department struggled to retain any semblance of credibility. In communities like Davis’ 5th District, where police officers routinely shook down drug dealers, the blue line became so blurred as to be unrecognizable.
A 1992 Justice Department report found New Orleans led the country in police brutality complaints. By the time of Davis’ arrest, in December 1994, The Times-Picayune reported that more than 40 police officers had been arrested in the preceding three years for crimes ranging from bank robbery and rape to bribery and auto theft.
“The Len Davis case needs to be understood among systemic corruption,” said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the LSU School of Public Health. “This was an era — not an individual.”
Neil J. Gallagher, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Orleans office at the time, said the Davis scandal “typified what was happening in New Orleans leading up to that one case.” Police officers, he said, “were grossly underpaid” and desperate to work off-duty details.
“The approach to hiring police and police training was just horrendous,” Gallagher said. “At that time, the concept of details was a side business, not controlled by the department but by individual police officers. That sort of set the standard and the environment that would allow for a corruption case of this magnitude. It was very fertile grounds for police corruption.”
About a year before Davis’ arrest, a drug dealer named Terry Adams complained to the FBI that police were extorting him for thousands of dollars in exchange for protection. The feds opened a sprawling investigation known as Operation Shattered Shield, in which undercover agents, posing as drug traffickers, paid police officers to stand sentinel outside buildings in which they were told cocaine deals were going down.
Davis got involved after the department paired him with Officer Sammie Williams, one of the Fifth District patrolmen on the take. The arrangement netted Davis and Williams thousands of dollars and “pleasure trips,” during which they were feted out of state for their services. Earning a city salary of $18,000, Davis took on a lucrative leadership role atop the drug racket, overseeing under-the-table payments to other NOPD officers recruited to guard warehouses of cocaine.
Davis had collected a list of disciplinary infractions, including a battery arrest that resulted in a 51-day suspension. Even his own appellate attorneys acknowledged in court filings he had no business being on the police force. They blamed his employment on the department’s laissez-faire hiring standards at the time — a period that in 2014 serves as a cautionary tale for a department desperately seeking to fill its depleted ranks.
As the sting expanded, an undercover agent gave Davis a wiretapped cellphone that the FBI used to record his conversations. The feds were eyeing an epic bust that promised to be the largest corruption case in NOPD history. About a dozen law enforcement officers would be charged before it was over.
“Had the FBI not had to act after the Kim Groves murder, I think the number of police officers involved in this cocaine protection ring would have been considerably larger,” said Harry Rosenberg, the former U.S. attorney in New Orleans who left the post in 1993.
With the drug investigation in full throttle, Davis had a series of run-ins with Groves. The 32-year-old mother claimed to have witnessed Davis and Williams, his partner, beating and pistol-whipping a 17-year-old whom the officers had mistaken for a suspect in the shooting of a police officer.
Davis, who complained that Groves was “lying on me,” insisted that only Williams was responsible for the beating. He became unhinged after learning Groves had taken her concerns to the department’s Internal Affairs Division, where she lodged an eight-page civil rights complaint against him that was supposed to remain confidential.
Wiretapped conversations revealed a chilling retaliation in which Davis, becoming more enraged by the hour, enlisted the services of Hardy, a triggerman known in the Florida housing development as a drug dealer and killer. Davis knew Hardy as “P,” and he was recorded promising to have Hardy “come do that whore now.” In other tape recordings, Davis could be heard tracking Groves down in her neighborhood and describing her appearance to Hardy over the phone, down to her skin tone and the bleach stains on her faded jeans.
“I know the f--- out of that bitch,” Davis told Hardy. “But the whore hanging out down there now. … You know what I wanna do.”
“After it’s done,” he added in a later call, “go straight Uptown and call me.”
After receiving confirmation that Hardy had carried out the hit, Davis exulted. “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” he shouted. “Rock, rock-a-bye.”
Mary Howell, a civil rights attorney who represents Groves’ children, said the murder marked “a line of demarcation,” a final straw of sorts that underscored the need for reforms. “That audio tape of him getting Paul Hardy, the hit man, to come and kill her was like our audio equivalent of Rodney King,” she said. “It had a huge impact on the city.”
Groves’ death drew little public notice at first. But behind the scenes, the FBI carried out eight search warrants on Nov. 2, 1994, finding the murder weapon in the apartment of Damon Causey, a man authorities said had accompanied Hardy during the hit. However, the three men charged in the murder conspiracy — Davis, Hardy and Causey — weren’t arrested until Dec. 5, 1994.
Gallagher, the retired FBI agent, insisted the agency could not have prevented the killing, saying the evidence had to be pieced together. “We’ve looked at that very carefully,” he said.
Davis didn’t stand trial until April 1996, a sensational proceeding in which he refused to testify but based his defense on the claim that Groves’ boyfriend was the actual killer. But the fallout from Davis’ arrest was immediate.
Keen, the former homicide commander, said ripple effects were felt from the street corners, where already-reluctant witnesses lost trust in investigators, to the courtroom, where jurors looked askance upon the NOPD badge. “It affected all of us and our performance for years,” Keen said. “When something like that happens, its lets the air out of you a little bit.”
Pennington, the newly minted superintendent sworn in the night of Groves’ murder, rolled out a series of reforms and new recruiting standards. Among other changes, he replaced Internal Affairs with the Public Integrity Division, which in a unique relationship was partially staffed by FBI agents.
Davis and his two co-defendants were found guilty in 1996 of depriving Groves of her civil rights. Davis and Hardy were sentenced to death, while Causey received a life term. Hardy was later resentenced to life after being deemed mentally retarded and ineligible for execution.
The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to support one of the counts of which Davis was convicted, triggering the 2005 penalty retrial in which he represented himself but again was sentenced to death. Davis, who claims he was wrongfully convicted and has vowed to “get justice,” has fought at every turn to continue acting as his own attorney, resulting in a hybrid representation that has muddled the proceedings.
It was not Davis but his “standby counsel,” the attorneys appointed to assist him, who filed an 11th-hour motion for a new trial in 2012 ahead of a strict deadline that would have barred future appeals. Though it infuriated prosecutors, the defense attorneys said they were ethically bound to pursue the challenge, portions of which Davis has agreed to incorporate into his defense.
Davis agreed to be interviewed for this article in person, but Warden J.F. Caraway of the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, denied The New Orleans Advocate’s request, saying an in-person interview on death row “could jeopardize security and disrupt the orderly running of the institution.”
The past two decades have been a struggle for Jasmine Groves, who was 12 when her mother was taken from her. She still thinks of her mother constantly and considers her a best friend, she said.
Every year around this time, she holds a memorial service with the families of other victims of civil rights abuses, a gathering that helps her to cope and make it through her Oct. 14 birthday. This year, she wrote a poem to Kim Groves titled “Dear Mama,” in which she expresses anger that her mother never lived to meet her grandchildren.
“I remember as a child being so happy and safe seeing the police because the car said, ‘To protect and serve,’ ” she wrote. “It was 911 I called to come help and save you, yet they know it was their own kind who killed you.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.