A group of University of Virginia law students had a class they’ll never forget after witnessing their professor win a Louisiana man his freedom during a resentencing hearing via Zoom.
“I’m never going to have a class this good again,” joked Professor Thomas Frampton in an interview with UVA Today.
Frampton began teaching at U.Va. this fall. While taking a tour of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in January, he met Nelson Davis, a man who had been serving a life sentence until being released from the state penitentiary the day of his resentencing hearing on Sept. 17.
Though Frampton said that the details of Davis’ conviction on a single count of second-degree murder – a murder for hire – “weren’t pretty,” he said his client’s sentencing was “illegal” and unjust.
“The original sentencing judge gave him a flat life sentence, but didn’t realize he had the discretion to impose a different penalty after those 40 years had run,” Frampton said. “That made it an illegal sentence, which gave us a vehicle to get back into court.”
Students watched as Frampton asked Judge Laurie A. White of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court to reconsider Davis’ fate.
“[The class] had read the appellate opinion in Mr. Davis’ case, from 1979, when we introduced homicide the day before, without knowing that I represented him or that they were going to see the real Mr. Davis via Zoom the next day,” Frampton said.
The 36 students filled the classroom as Frampton addressed the court. From their personal laptops, they watched their professor ask Judge Laurie A. White of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court to reconsider Davis’ fate.
Though Frampton was confident in his client’s right for a resentencing, he was well aware that the hearing could have ended entirely against Davis’.
“The judge had the discretion to resentence him to life in prison if she wanted to,” Frampton said. “Up until the last moment, it could have gone either way.”
After 42 years in prison, White ruled that Davis was officially a free man.
“I teared up when the judge announced what [Davis’] new sentence would be. The other inmates who had court that day started applauding on Mr. Davis’ behalf, and Mr. Davis was obviously just ecstatic,” Frampton told UVA Today. “He’s so well-known and so well-liked at Angola, that the warden and other prison staff were congratulating him that he was going to get to go home.”
Frampton emphasized that he did not help secure Davis’ freedom on his own. For years before Frampton took on the case, Davis had been unofficially represented by an “inmate counsel,” or other inmates who, though never having practiced law, informally assisted Davis and other inmates in legal matters relating to their sentence.
“[Davis’] original sentence was illegal, and these guys figured that out,” Frampton said.
Frampton said Davis’ resentencing “wouldn’t have been possible” if he and his inmate counsel hadn’t kept his case alive for all these years.
“The legal victories they made prior to the stage I got to work on … put us in a position where we were able to argue for a new sentence,” Frampton said.
Davis’ resentencing hearing was originally scheduled for Monday, Sept. 14. Due to a hurricane in Louisiana, it was rescheduled for Thursday that week – right between class time for Frampton.
“I wasn’t going to postpone the court hearing and keep Mr. Davis in prison a day longer. I thought about cancelling class, but decided it would be a pretty great opportunity for the students to see criminal law in action,” Frampton said.
Frampton said his 36 students appreciated being a part of the “pivotal moment” in Davis’ life.
“It impressed upon them the state of what it is that we’re talking about and reading about and learning about in criminal law class,” Frampton said.
Davis was convicted for the 1976 murder by a verdict of 10-2. Louisiana courts permitted non-unanimous verdicts until voters in the state passed a constitutional amendment in 2018 to end the practice.
Davis will remain on probation, with his status revocable by the judge based on behavior.
“I’ve been talking to him every couple of days. He’s readjusting to the world,” Frampton said. “Forty-two years is a long time to be gone.”
Frampton who began his career with the Orleans Public Defender, will continue to handle some cases there.