The Wyoming Supreme Court on Friday ordered a lower court modify the sentence of a man who pleaded guilty in 1983 to murdering a hitchhiker.
Donald Clyde Davis, 53, admitted to committing the murder when he was 17 years old. He was sentenced to life in prison to be followed by 20 to 50 years imprisonment. After serving 33 years, he was paroled on the life sentence. Davis was granted a new sentencing hearing at which a district court judge declined to modify his sentence.
The state’s highest court on Friday decided Davis’ sentence violated his Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishments. The Wyoming Supreme Court ordered another sentencing hearing for Davis, to account for his age at the time of the crime.
Davis was drinking during the day and into the night of Sept. 5, 1982, when he met up with Robert Cotton, court document indicate he said in 1983. The two men picked up a hitchhiker before stopping and pulling the passenger out of the car. Cotton handcuffed the hitchhiker. Davis put a knife to the man’s neck while Cotton rifled through his pockets, retrieving money and a lighter.
The victim “raised up and the knife stuck in his throat,” Davis told investigators who prepared a 1983 sentencing report. At Cotton’s suggestion, Davis then stabbed the knife deeper into the man’s throat.
The man’s body was found on Mayoworth Road in Johnson County two days later.
Davis pleaded guilty to first-degree murder before striking a deal with prosecutors and entering guilty pleas to felony murder and aggravated robbery. A judge sentenced him in January 1983, in keeping with the terms of the plea deal.
A change in Wyoming law that took place while Davis was in prison made him eligible for parole after he had served 25 years. He was paroled from the life sentence in 2015 and began serving time on his 20-to 50-year sentence.
In July 2016, Davis received a new sentencing hearing following decisions by the United States and Wyoming Supreme Courts modifying sentencing for minors tried as adults. At that hearing, a district court judge imposed the original sentence. The judge wrote that Davis was essentially an adult when he committed the crime, was still violent in prison and unlikely to be rehabilitated.
Davis appealed the ruling to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
In the court’s ruling handed down Friday, Justice Michael Davis wrote that although Donald Davis was serving an effective life sentence, that alone was not enough for his sentence to be reduced. However, because the district court did not consider Davis’s age when sentencing him on review, the judge failed to consider the typical immaturity of juveniles.
Michael Davis noted that Donald Davis entered a “cold plea” to the first-degree murder charge in an attempt to avoid the death penalty. The justice wrote Donald Davis may have entered the plea due to immaturity and struck a plea deal for the maximum penalty allowed by law for the same reason.
The district court failed to consider relevant facts, to consider all factors set forth by a U.S. Supreme Court Case and to properly weigh the factors, Michael Davis wrote.
“More likely than not, life without parole is a disproportionate sentence for Mr. (Donald) Davis,” the justice wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Keith Kautz wrote the U.S. Supreme Court decision had been interpreted in other states to not include effective life sentences without parole. Because Davis was paroled from the life sentence and is now serving a 20-to 50-year term, his case should not be remanded, Kautz wrote.
The case sets a precedent that takes appropriate discretion away from sentencing judges, Kautz wrote.
“The facts show that these crimes were a calculated, depraved aggravated robbery and a cold, calculated execution,” Kautz wrote. “Under any reasonable standard of review, the district judge’s decision was not an abuse of discretion.”