There isn't much we know about the man who murdered 24-year-old Brian Leigh Davis more than 30 years ago. We know there was party and a fight. There are a collection of witness interviews with a couple of different stories on how it all went down. Evidence: some clothing, a matchbook from the Wooden Nickel bar, and an empty corn nuts bag. Witnesses say the alleged murderer, who shot Davis in the head through his right eye, was wearing dark clothing, had long dark hair and a beard and mustache. He took off riding a dark stolen 10-speed bicycle.
One witness told Tucson Police Department detectives back then that at one point the man dropped the handgun used in the incident and stopped to pick it up, before driving off, supposedly never to be seen again.
Davis' murder is now under TPD's cold case unit, and while his killer has never been found, his sister hasn't given up on the idea that, what she calls "small miracles," could eventually surface and the case could be solved and closed.
However, what drives Erin Whitfield in finding her brother's murderer isn't revenge or what she describes as a sense of misguided justice. No, this is about sisterly love and all the obligations that come with that—obligations that exist when you create a space for someone in your heart.
For Whitfield, Davis is there, and although she made peace with the person who shot and killed her brother, she told the Tucson Weekly from her Armory Park home that after building a career as a criminal defense and death penalty paralegal, she has a perspective on how the legal system works even though she also happens to be a social justice and anti-death penalty activist.
"I've forgiven the murderer, but he still needs to be caught and put through that system and punished for the simple reason we live in a civilized society and that's how it works," Whitfield said.
Whitfield, for the first time since her brother's 1984 murder, requested his investigation file with all the original police reports, witness statements and lab reports. The file sits on her desk as she figures out how to approach each page—as a criminal defense case going through each detail and statement or as a sister working hard to protect herself from every detail that led to her brother's death.
She said she's probably going to do a bit of both, but this particular anniversary she's also continued a tradition she started about seven years ago—sending an email and photo to the detectives in the cold case unit. There's the photo of him as a little boy with his head covered in thick blond hair. Another is of her brother as a young man at a family wedding.
"I send them photos to remind them of his case, that he has family that still thinks of him," she said. "And to remind them that he's human—he's loved."
Whitfield said she recently heard from the TPD cold case unit that they are back on her brother's case, looking at DNA evidence that was never processed. At this 30th anniversary of his murder, she's renewed with hope, which is better, she said than 19 years that passed from 1984 to 2003 with no investigative report generated, except in 1986 from a man who called police and claimed he knew where the killer worked.
"That's almost Brian's entire lifetime," Whitfield said.
"I've made my peace with the person who shot and killed him years ago. But frankly, 19 years reflects so much that was wrong in the handling of the case over 30 years—apathy, sloppiness, poor management—I don't know what else one can infer by that length of time other than those things."
WHAT HAPPENED TO BRIAN LEIGH DAVIS?
According to newspaper reports from October 1984, Davis was shot in the face during a fight at a party in front of a boarding house on the 700 block of East First Street. He died the next morning at University of Arizona Medical Center. The weapon used was never recovered, and police told reporters that the suspect fled south on North Euclid Avenue on the stolen 10-speed bicycle before they arrived. The suspect was identified as a white male transient, 25-30 years told, 5 feet 8, between 150 and 160 pounds with dark hair and an unkempt beard and mustache wearing dark clothing.
A photograph from one of the reports, shows a police officer standing over the crime scene, a chalk outline of Whitfield's brother's body where it laid mortally wounded.
According to police reports from that time, Davis was shot with an unknown type of handgun. In one supplementary report, a detective interviewed a witness who claimed he was walking in front of the boarding house and heard a group of individuals talking about the shooting and that someone paid another person to kill Davis. There are other accounts that describe Davis fighting with people there, and the shooter pulling out a gun as Davis left the house. There are several pages more of interviews with witnesses, including a few from people there who said they could easily identify the shooter—if the police apprehended him.
In public records involving the case, there are several references to Whitfield's calls to police asking for an update on the cold case investigation. There's also a 2010 reference to some lab work related to the case, but nothing more.
What impressed Whitfield about the new cold case unit detective on the case, David Miller, is that up until now, he's the only TPD detective on the case willing to talk with her extensively. However, Whitfield isn't the same person when her brother was killed in the early '80s—she's now built a long-time career analyzing criminal cases for her legal clients working on murder and death penalty cases.
"I think I was emotionally ready," she said, referring to looking at her brother's file for the first time this year. "It was redacted some. I read through the whole thing. I can't process the information ... I started working on it like a regular case with a cast of characters, a timeline, and tracking evidence."
Part of the difficulty is that this is obviously not just a regular case. Her brother was also troubled at the time: semi-homeless, suffering from schizophrenia, and slightly estranged from Whitfield and her parents. She was newly married and starting her own family. Over time in her career, however, she's learned how transient murders are often treated. She worried that no one was taking her brother's case seriously.
"I was always worried about him. He's my brother," she said.
She and Davis were both born in New York City, and lived with their mother in Detroit and then Colorado and then Arizona. Whitfield said she clings to beautiful memories of living on a Colorado ranch and her family growing their own vegetables. Her athletic brother would create obstacle courses, and she'd write plays and force Davis to act them out.
When Davis first showed signs of schizophrenia, it was difficult. He was also doing drugs and when they saw him it was usually for money. The last time she saw him, he came over and did ask for money.
"I said no, but hugged him and said, 'I love you,' which we always did," she said.
"My parents did try to get help. I don't think the mental system has improved all that much. There wasn't much we could do unless he harmed himself or somebody else."
JUSTICE AND FORGIVENESS
On the 10th anniversary of her brother's murder, she did a special ritual on the street corner where he was shot. She wanted to focus on her brother's life and chose right then and there to forgive his killer.
"And I made a commitment to peace and to living nonviolently in my own life. That was enough for then," she said.
"I don't really believe in the closure. I lost my brother and a certain chapter is closed," but the pain never really goes away.
And with Miller taking on the case, Whitfield knows there's the likely chance it will remain unsolved, but there's also a chance that something will come forward—a forgotten witness or new DNA tests. Looking down at her hands, she said, "But being a trained paralegal, I see inconsistencies."
"There's this person out there and a series of events that led him to that moment of killing my brother and then he went on and had some other kind of life. That's his journey."
Then there's Whitfield's journey.
"You're never prepared for it. This kind of crime rocks you to your bone. On a cellular level you are affected and you're never the same person ever again."
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?
For the 30th anniversary of her brother's murder, Whitfield with some close friends and family went up to Pima Canyon for a special ceremony to remember Davis.
Could her patience be rewarded this year? Could Davis' killer be identified?
Detective David Miller from the TPD headquarters on Stone Avenue, said right now there are 340 cold cases currently under his and another detective's care, with one of the oldest going further than Davis' case to 1961.
"I would say (Davis' case) is in the top 25 percent oldest cases," Miller says.
Homicide cases head to the cold case unit after two years without any leads, or they are no longer assigned to homicide detective or that detective has retired. TPD's cold case unit started in 2006, funded through a grant. Those funds are gone now and the unit is part of the TPD budget, but only two officers are assigned to the 340 cases—Miller and his co-worker Detective Maria Cheek.
Miller said he's unsure how many of cold cases have been resolved. What complicates things further is that many cases don't go resolved but are closed when it's discovered that a suspect has passed away. Not every ending ends with an arrest, he said.
Miller said it's difficult to get specific about where he's going with Davis' investigation, but he confirmed that a DNA swab was taken from Whitfield's cheek to use in a new round of DNA testing that Miller wants to do with evidence that still exists.
Each case is different, Miller said, but family members want to know the status of a case and why certain things are done or not done. The gap of inactivity on Davis' investigation isn't unusual he added. Part of that time was before the cold case unit existed, and sometimes it can take a long time for something to either come to light or for new technology to help a case out. There's also a lack of manpower, which is obvious with this TPD cold case two-man operation.
"As time permits, we do work on numerous cases at one time," he said, but they never make promises.
"I see that a lot on TV, but I learned early on you can't do that. The one thing we can tell the families is that we're going to do what's physically possible on each and every case that we can."
The best scenario for cold cases is physical evidence. People can change their stories or perspectives as time goes on, but physical evidence and changing technology only helps their investigations. While Miller can't comment further on Davis' case with specifics, there is physical evidence that's never been tested that could yield results in a DNA test. Witness from that time may be unreliable—some of passed away and many have also moved, he said.
But yes, the physical evidence.
"There's part of me that understands the impossible," Whitfield said.
"Then there's part of me that's Brian's sister."