Willie Lee Davis

Willie Lee Davis

Background

On the eve of the celebration of our nation’s independence, July 3, 1943, Chief of Police, James Mitchell Bohannon, shot and killed Willie Lee Davis at a roadhouse on the outskirts of Summit, Georgia. Davis was twenty-six years old and a Corporal in the army.

Davis had enlisted in the army on November 18, 1941. While on a fourteen-day furlough visiting his widowed mother in Summit, Davis visited the local roadhouse. According to witness affidavits, Davis was on the front porch, chatting with Ms. Cleo Cotton, when Bohannon approached him from behind. Newspaper articles reported that Bohannon was apparently responding to a call to restore order at the roadhouse. According to multiple witnesses present at the shooting, as well as Bohannon’s own statement, Bohannon put his hands on Davis’ pockets so as to search him. When Davis resisted, pushing Bohannon’s hands away, Bohannon slapped Davis, to which Davis responded, “You ain’t got no right to hit me. I’m not your man – I’m Uncle Sam’s man,” and either hit, or attempted to hit Bohannon. The two began to tussle, falling off the porch in the process. Davis broke away from Bohannon and fled into an alley between two houses, which was blocked off at the end by a picket fence. Bohannon, ordering his son to shine a flashlight at Davis’ fleeing form, followed him into the alley and, soon thereafter, shot Davis in the chest, killing him instantly.

Legal Status

Despite Mrs. Davis’ attempts, the local Summit authorities and the state of Georgia failed to take any action against Bohannon. Nevertheless, the War Department initiated an investigation two days after the shooting. Despite Bohannon’s claim of self defense, the investigating officer recommended the Department of Justice look further into the case, writing “[i]n light of the evidence presented and the apparent indifferent of civil authorities, it is the opinion of the investigating Officer that T/5th Grade Davis was unjustifiable shot and killed.” Almost a year after the shooting, the FBI began its own investigation at the request of the Department of Justice.

The findings of the investigation prompted U.S. Attorney J. Saxton Daniel, acting on behalf of the Department of Justice, to file charges against Bohannon and a trial date was set for January 15, 1945. The government charged Bohannon with violation of what was then Section 20 of the Criminal Code, or 18 U.S.C. section 52. This section of the code provides: “whoever, under color of any law, willfully subjects or causes to be subjected, any inhabitant of any State, the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States by reason of his color or race, shall be punished as provided in the statute.” Bohannon was on duty and therefore acting under “color of law,” when he shot Davis, dispossessing him of his right not to be deprived of his life without due process.

However, according to the letter written by the presiding judge to Mrs. Davis, the Department of Justice decided to postpone the trial date until the decision of Screws v. United States was handed down, in the hope that the decision would provide much-needed clarification on the law under which Bohannon was charged. In May of 1945, the U.S. Supreme Court found in Screws that a conviction under Section 20 required a showing that the accused had the specific intent to deprive the victim of a constitutional right. Moreover, in determining whether the specific intent requirement was met, the jury could consider all the attendant circumstances of the shooting, including for example, the presence of provocation. Bohannon claimed he had been forced to shoot Davis in self-defense because Davis had threatened his life and advanced towards him in the alley, despite Bohannon’s alleged order that he stop. Accordingly, believing there was not enough evidence to meet the Screws specific intent requirement, in July of 1945, the Department of Justice nolle prossed the case, dropping all charges against Bohannon.

Mrs. Davis pressed on, as evidenced by her inquiries to the Department of Justice, the prosecuting attorney, and the presiding judge after the charges were dropped. Both U.S. Attorney J. Saxton Daniel, and Judge Archibald B. Lovett of the Southern District Court of Georgia, responded to Mrs. Davis, explaining the reasoning behind the Department of Justice’s decision. Tragically, no other legal action was ever taken, and Bohannon never faced any consequences for Davis’ murder.