Man killed in N.Y. prison once hailed as a cult hero
NEW YORK — To some on the streets, Larry Davis was a legend: A black drug dealer who shot six white police officers as they closed in to arrest him, then fled into the night and eluded capture for more than two weeks.
To authorities, he was an outrage — a violent criminal who would beat the court system time and time again, staying out of jail until he was convicted years later in a separate case.
His saga came to a violent end last Wednesday night, when a fellow inmate stabbed him to death with a homemade knife in a New York state prison. Years after the violence that made him notorious, his dual identity still stirs emotions in the city.
Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who was in office when the case was tried, said he didn’t shed any tears when he learned that Davis had been killed.
“He was a killer, and he shot six cops,” Koch said. “You shouldn’t take pride in the execution of anybody illegally, but I believe that there is a special oil pot in hell for him.”
Davis was 20 and was wanted in the killings of five fellow Bronx drug dealers when police raided his sister’s Bronx apartment on Nov. 19, 1986. As they burst in, Davis grabbed a pistol and began firing. Six officers were wounded in an exchange of gunfire; others ran for their lives.
He was on the lam for 17 days before he finally surrendered at a Bronx housing project.
As police led him away in handcuffs, crowds of supporters who believed he was a symbol of resistance defending his life by standing up to a corrupt police force came to cheer him on, chanting “Lar-ry! Lar-ry! Lar-ry!”
At his trial, his two radical lawyers, William Kunstler and Lynne Stewart, made a remarkable argument: They said he had been pushed into drug dealing by corrupt cops, then targeted by a police death squad when he defied their will and tried to quit.
Davis was never able to produce evidence to corroborate his claims, but it hardly mattered. After 38 hours of deliberations, the jury found he had fired at the officers in self-defense, and he was convicted only of weapons charges.
The victory was the second in an unlikely string of acquittals. In a separate trial, Davis beat charges that he killed four Bronx drug dealers. Another jury acquitted him of fatally shooting a drug dealer in Harlem.
Quickly, his court appearances became spectacles, attended by activists and militants who cheered his victories and claimed he was being set up. Sometimes, he appeared in bandages, saying he had been beaten by guards.
Prosecutors finally broke through in 1991, when Davis was convicted of gunning down another reputed drug dealer in the Bronx.
“He had very little charm,” Stewart said. “But he was what he was, and full marks have to be given to someone who is willing to stand up when he is under fire.”
The trials happened at a turbulent time in the relationship between police officers and minorities in the city. At the time, most of the police force was white, while most of the people being arrested were black or Hispanic. Davis was black.
The New York Police Department was also at the end of a decades-long period during which it had been plagued by corruption and allegations of brutality.
Residents of poor, minority neighborhoods complained about being stopped and frisked by police officers regularly, even when they had done nothing wrong. True-life tales of officers stealing money from drug dealers and beating suspects were rampant.
Not long before Davis went on trial, a jury acquitted a white police officer of manslaughter in the death of Eleanor Bumpurs, a 67-year-old black woman who was shot to death when she resisted attempts to evict her from her Bronx apartment in 1984.
“I think there was a sense in the black community,” Stewart said, “that the police were just running wild and shooting to kill.”
Davis’ acquittal in the police gunfight, though, still came as a stunner. More than 1,500 officers demonstrated after the verdict was announced. Legal pundits complained that juries in the Bronx had become so distrustful of police as to disregard reason.
Over his years in prison, Davis retained a following among some radicals who continued to insist he had been framed. New York radio host Bob Fass said he had made Davis a regular call-in guest at his show on WBAI-FM. He was expecting another call from Davis last Wednesday when the news came that he had been killed.
“There was always a bit of the urgent con in his voice,” Fass said.
Still, he gained no sympathy from those who arrested and prosecuted him. Former Bronx prosecutor William B. Flack, who lost the police shooting case against Davis, said he wasn’t surprised to hear how Davis had died: “He lived a violent life, and he died a violent death.”