Looking for a Lifeline

updated 05/22/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/1995 01:00AM

GIRVIES L. DAVIS IS SCHEDULED to die on May 17 at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill., but even as his days tick away he has managed to venture to a new frontier: the Internet. There, on the computer network used by as many as 30 million people worldwide, net surfers can find a color photo of Davis staring out from the home page of his own information exchange center. A headline proclaims, "This Man May Be Executed for a Crime He Didn't Commit," and a flashing number gives the days left until his execution by lethal injection. A click on an icon produces a 34-second audio message from Davis, 37, urging that e-mail messages be sent to Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar asking that Davis's death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. "I am truly sorry for the wrongs that I have done," he says solemnly. "But I am not a murderer."

Davis's high-tech campaign for clemency was the brainchild of Brian Murphy, 27, who works with his five pro bono attorneys from the Chicago law firm of Jenner & Block. "I realized that we could not only reach millions of people instantaneously on the Internet," says Murphy, who surfs the network nightly, "but that it is harder for people to get out a letter and put a stamp on it than to send a response by e-mail." In fact, since the home page (http://www.mcs.net/~bkmurph/girvies.htm) was set up on April 24, more than 50,000 Internet users have paid a visit, and more than 450 e-mail messages have been forwarded to Governor Edgar. That compares with 200 conventional letters sent to Edgar, most by opponents of capital punishment, before the execution last May of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

Davis was sentenced to death in 1980 for the murder nearly two years earlier of Charles Biebel, 89, a wheelchair-bound, retired farmer who was shot during a robbery at his Belleville, Ill., mobile home. Davis was also given a death sentence, later vacated on a prosecutor's error, for the 1979 slaying of Esther Sepmeyer, an 83-year-old woman in Maryville, Ill., and is serving two consecutive 40-year jail terms for the murders in East St. Louis that same year of John Oertel, 84, a retiree, and Frank Cash, 21, an auto-parts store clerk. All the convictions were based largely on a series of confessions that Davis later claimed police had forced him to sign at the end of a late-night interrogation session. "There is no physical evidence that places Davis at the scene of the crime or that links him to the murder weapon in the Biebel case," says David Schwartz, 25, one of his current attorneys.

Schwartz got involved in the case last September after numerous appeals had already been rejected by the state and federal courts. Left with few options except a plea for clemency, Schwartz was delighted when Murphy suggested using the Internet. "I knew it was a great idea as soon as I heard it," says Schwartz. "But the rest of us on the case would never have thought of it because we are all afraid of computers." It took Murphy just a few days to set up the home page, which includes the full text of Davis's clemency appeal and simple instructions for sending e-mail messages to Governor Edgar.

Davis was initially baffled by the idea of going online with his clemency appeal. "He's never used a computer and didn't know what the Internet was," says Murphy. Indeed, he has been illiterate most of his life—one of the arguments his lawyers have raised in their efforts to discredit his signed confessions, which they claim were made at a time when he couldn't read or write anything but his own name. A native of East St. Louis who grew up in a broken home with a half-dozen siblings all fathered by different men, Davis dropped out of school in the fourth grade and had a long string of juvenile arrests for purse snatching, petty thievery and burglary before his multiple convictions for robbery and murder at age 21.

During his 15 years on death row, Davis learned to read and write, and he says he underwent a religious conversion. Now a minister who received his mail-order ordination, he spends much of his time studying his personally annotated Bible. None of which impresses Robert Haida, the state's attorney currently in charge of his case. "There is nothing Girvies Davis has done since he was incarcerated that can overcome the devastation he has inflicted," Haida says. "We have convictions on four homicides. If you have a death penalty, it fits."

The Illinois Prisoner Review Board, an independent governmental agency, was to hear Davis's plea for clemency on May 11 and make a confidential, nonbinding recommendation to Governor Edgar. Dan Egler, a spokesman for the conservative Republican governor, will not speculate about whether or not his boss will be swayed by the flood of e-mail. "The governor will decide this case based on the facts," says Egler. But Davis's attorneys are hopeful that the unusual campaign for clemency has at least caught Edgar's attention. "If there was no outcry, it would have been easy for Edgar to do nothing," says Murphy. "Whatever decision he makes, we wanted him to feel the eyes of the public are on him."

DAVID GROGAN
BARBARA SANDLER in Chicago

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