Javon Davis spent nearly six years behind bars for attempted murder before he was cleared of the crime.
In March 2020, a Hennepin County judge overturned Davis’ conviction based on ineffective counsel. Prosecutors could have decided to retry him, but instead Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office filed a motion to dismiss the charges against him “in the interest of justice.”
Davis walked out of prison a free man, but he had lost six years of his life, income and relationships. There’s a Minnesota law that allows wrongfully convicted prisoners to file for compensation. Davis filed a petition to ask for that compensation on May 28, 2020.
But when he did, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office opposed him.
In a response to the petition, County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office said Davis should not be compensated for his years in prison. According to the court filings, the state does not believe Davis is innocent, despite no longer having the evidence to prove his guilt.
Freeman’s office wrote that because one primary witness had died and the other couldn’t be found, it was “highly unlikely” that the state could prove Javon was the shooter “beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.” This created a “legal duty, an ethical duty, and a duty to the interests of justice to dismiss the case prior to a second trial.”
Freeman’s office said Davis “has not established any evidence of factual innocence.” In a sworn affidavit, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Sean Cahill wrote, “The State has never believed that Mr. James Davis is factually innocent.”
Susan Gaertner, a former longtime Ramsey County Attorney, did not speak specifically about this case but commented on the prosecutor’s role in these situations.
“If a judge grants a new trial, it's because questions have been raised about whether or not the underlying conviction was valid,” she said. “That doesn't mean necessarily that a prosecutor is going to believe the defendant is innocent. There is a big difference, in a prosecutor’s mind and in reality, between whether someone did commit a crime, and whether a prosecutor can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In fact, Gaertner pointed out that it’s actually vital to the system that a prosecutor believes the person they are prosecuting is guilty. If they didn’t, they would be trying to send an innocent person to prison.
“The prosecutor is not the one that holds in his or her mind at the beginning of trial that the defendant is innocent,” Gaertner said. “In fact, that would turn the whole system on its head. The prosecutor has an ethical obligation not to bring charges unless he or she believes that they have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. So, then, the prosecutor does not start a trial holding in his or her head the presumption that the person is innocent. The jury does. The system does. The prosecutor does not.”
Of course, a prosecutor still has to have proof beyond a reasonable doubt if they want to retry the person, once the conviction has been wiped away. That’s why Freeman declined to retry Davis.
But Freeman does not have to have a certain level of evidence to oppose Davis’ motion. In fact, he’s within his rights, based on the statute itself.
Minnesota’s compensation statute
Under the law, compensation does not happen automatically. The person whose conviction was overturned has to file a petition. And then the same prosecutor who convicted them has to respond. They can choose to agree with the person - that if they knew then what they know now - they would never have filed the charges. In that case, the person is automatically eligible.
But if they fight the petition like Mike Freeman is doing, the person has to request a hearing with a judge. At that hearing, they have to prove that they have “factual evidence of innocence.”
The Minnesota compensation statute gives multiple definitions of “exonerated.” Back in 2014, it only referred to people whose convictions were overturned “on grounds consistent with innocence.”
But in 2019, the Minnesota Legislature amended the statute to include people whose convictions were vacated for other reasons, and for whom there is additionally “any evidence of factual innocence.”
Julie Jonas of the Great North Innocence Project helped to bring this law into existence. She said the standard of “any evidence” at all is intentionally low, so that the person can get in the door to get a hearing - and prove their innocence to a judge.
Freeman’s office said that Davis hasn’t brought any evidence of factual innocence. But Davis’ attorney, Seth Leventhal, disagrees. In his appeal, Leventhal referenced the evidence of innocence Davis plans to bring forward, including alibi witnesses and cell phone records that place him away from the crime scene at the time of the shooting.
Javon’s petition for compensation was denied on Feb. 4, 2021. The same judge who freed him, Paul Scoggin, had previously granted him a hearing. Then after further review of the case law, he changed his mind.
Scoggin wrote in his new order that “the devil is in the details.” He explained that he was having trouble interpreting the compensation statute.
Scoggin said he granted Davis a hearing based on his “literal reading” of the statute. But after reviewing other Minnesota Court of Appeals decisions about the statute, he changed his mind. He referenced a court of appeals decision that stated the legislature did not mean to repeal the “important gatekeeping function” in the “consistent with innocence” language of the statute. In other words, that the petitioner still has an obligation “to show original relief was based on grounds consistent with innocence.”
Scoggin wrote in his denial that the courts have “struggled to establish a clear interpretation of an unclear law.” The judge said that the way he reads the statute and case law, the conviction has to be vacated based on actual innocence. So Davis’ wrongful conviction based on ineffective counsel doesn’t qualify.
He said that while he did indeed rule in 2020 that Javon’s verdict would have been different if he’d had effective counsel, that’s not the same as his being innocent. Scoggin wrote, “‘the state cannot prove it’ and ‘the defendant didn’t do it’ are two very different things.”
In his original order vacating Davis’ conviction and setting him free, Scoggin wrote that if the defense attorneys had been effective, the verdict probably would have been different. The judge said their mistakes “infected the entire trial, allowing the State to present what proved to be a ‘thin’ case against Davis based largely on inadmissible but damaging evidence.”
Because Javon’s petition for compensation was denied, he won’t have the chance to have a hearing in front of a judge, where he can present evidence of innocence and request compensation.
The judge suggested that the court of appeals, or the legislature, could address the language of the statute and clear it up.
Going to the author
Minnesota Sen. Ron Latz, who helped to write the legislation, said that the statute was amended in 2019 for just this reason.
“I think the statute is pretty clear,” he said.
Latz said the amended language separates the evidence of innocence from the grounds for reversal of the conviction. In other words, two things have to happen: the conviction has to be vacated, and there has to be some evidence of innocence. The conviction does not have to be vacated based on that evidence of innocence.
“The Court of Appeals appears to have read the statute differently than the legislature intended the language to reflect,” Latz said. “And that contributed to a lack of clarity on the part of the trial court as to what direction he was supposed to go with it.”
Latz said he believes rewriting the law again would contribute to the confusion, and that the courts will need to come to an agreement on how to interpret it.
The amount of money in question is substantial - up to $100,000 for each year incarcerated, and up to $50,000 for each year on probation. And the legislature never intended it to go to every person who has a conviction vacated.
“We didn't want to create a statute that simply opened up the door for every reversal to result in exoneration,” Latz said. “The point of the compensation is to compensate people who were wrongfully convicted because there was substantial evidence of innocence that may or may not have - that probably didn't - come out in trial.”
Davis and his attorneys have appealed Scoggin’s ruling. If that appeal is denied by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, he could ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to review it.