Death row inmate gets medals earned in war

The Associated PressSeptember 6, 2009 

— Guards took the shackles off death row prisoner James Davis and led him into a small room to get the Army medals he earned more than 40 years ago.

The North Carolina inmate slouched over as retired therapist Jim Johnson picked up the Purple Heart and the Good Conduct medals Davis earned in Vietnam, but never received.

But Johnson told The Fayetteville Observer that as he prepared to pin the medals on the triple-murderer from Asheville, Davis snapped to attention, hands cupped to the side. Johnson stepped back, and the two Tet Offensive veterans looked at each other. Davis then gave a crisp salute, Johnson said.

A few minutes later, the medals were tucked away. Davis, who will likely never touch them again, returned to his cell on death row in Central Prison in Raleigh. He is hard of hearing from the bombs that fell in 1968, one of which rocketed a chunk of metal that remains in his thigh. The leg still throbs when it gets cold.

The 62-year-old killer wants to give up all his appeals for killing two of his former bosses and another person in a tool company in 1995, although an attorney continues to fight for him.

"No soldier's service to our country should be ignored," Johnson said. "A lot of people would say, 'It's just a medal. Forget it.' Not to me, it's not. To me, it's the recognition that every soldier deserves. No matter what happened, his service should be recognized."

Effects of war

Davis' attorney, Ken Rose, brought the inmate and the therapist together. Rose is trying to get Davis off death row, saying his trial attorneys did not do their jobs. He contends they mostly ignored signs of mental illness in their client that started early because of abuse when he was a child and was made worse through post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the war.

A Veterans Administration physician determined Davis suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and depression. His marriage collapsed, he attempted suicide and he was fired for fighting with co-workers not long before he returned to his job and went on a shooting spree.

Rose hoped Johnson and Davis would bond because of their Vietnam experiences. Davis was a corporal at a gun base, while Johnson was a chaplain.

It worked. The two talked about life and death, combat and fear. And Johnson learned Davis never received the Purple Heart, a medal given to any soldier wounded in action. Further research led Johnson and Rose to find that Davis should have also received a Good Conduct Medal.

The Army had no problem sending the medals. But the prison balked at awarding them.

Johnson turned to James French. The deputy director of the state's correction system is a Vietnam veteran himself. After some thought, French agreed to the simple prison ceremony which was held July 29.

"I wasn't looking at a criminal," Johnson said. "I was looking at a fellow veteran, wounded physically and mentally in service to his country."

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