Donald Davis relies on his decision-making skills

March 2, 2009
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Donald Davis has spent his entire legal career in Grand Rapids, the last 33 years as an assistant U.S. attorney. When he was selected as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan last fall, his duties changed drastically: Upon taking the job, he became responsible for all the cases the office handles. But that’s OK with him.

“I love making decisions and moving on. It’s a little bit like trial work because you have a big team working with you and everyone makes suggestions. I have to orchestrate all of it so we end up with something we can be proud of,” Davis said. 

As U.S. attorney, Davis’ office prosecutes all crimes and offenses against the United States that take place within the western judicial district of Michigan. As such, he serves as the chief law enforcement officer of the district and is responsible for coordinating multiple agency investigations within it.

Davis graduated from Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science and certification as a secondary school teacher. He then served as a motorman in the U.S. Marine Corps and worked briefly as an elementary school teacher, before attending University of Michigan Law School. After graduating from law school, he went to work as a law clerk for then Chief U.S. District Judge Noel Fox.

“A law clerk really gets to see how judges operate, particularly in the District Court because you get to see a lot of trials,” Davis said.   

In April 1975, a year into his clerkship, Frank Spies, who was then U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, asked Davis if he was interested in becoming an assistant U.S. attorney. Spies asked Judge Fox to release Davis from his clerkship a year early, and the judge agreed. Davis hired on as the fourth assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District, and since then, the office has grown to include 38 assistant attorneys.

He served the office as first assistant U.S. attorney under former U.S. Attorney Jim Brady in the late 1970s. There weren’t actually division chiefs at that time, but Davis also headed up what was the equivalent of a criminal division. When John Smietanka became the U.S. attorney for the district in 1981, he appointed Thomas Gezon as first assistant and Davis as official chief of the criminal division, a role he maintained until 1995.

“Citizens should feel comfortable that the people in this office are hard-working people who are doing jobs they’re entrusted to do,” Davis remarked. “They earn their money, and their work makes the Western District of Michigan a better place to live and a more just place to live.”

In his tenure with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Davis has served under eight U.S. presidents and 11 U.S. attorneys for the Western District. Each new president sets the national priorities. The previous administration, for instance, was big on immigration cases, and the last two administrations were both big on violent crime and drugs, Davis observed. Yet each judicial district of the U.S. Attorney’s Office has quite a bit of autonomy in setting the tone for its district, he pointed out.

“The whole concept of the U.S. attorney started back in 1789 when there was the U.S. attorney general and 13 U.S. attorneys for the 13 colonies,” Davis explained. “The attorney general didn’t go out to those districts very often, if at all, so the U.S. attorneys were pretty independent and set the tone for the needs of their particular district. That tradition has kind of stayed. We now have 94 districts, and the needs and priorities are different in different districts, and the Department of Justice allows U.S. attorneys a lot of flexibility.”

Cases that fall under the U.S. attorney’s jurisdiction are challenging on many different levels, Davis said: There might be interesting evidentiary issues or problems with court rulings on the case. One of the most difficult cases he was involved in was the prosecution of Marvin Gabrion for the murder of Rachel Timmerman. Gabrion was convicted of drowning Timmerman in 1997 in Oxford Lake in the Manistee National Forest in Newago County. The murder site was 220 feet south of the Michigan federal border on Oxford Lake, which made it a federal death case, Davis recalled. The federal government has the death penalty but the state of Michigan doesn’t. It took two years to bring a murder charge, and a federal jury chose the death sentence for Gabrion in 2002.

“Not only are you dealing with crime as everyone sees it — homicide with real victims — but after the guilt phase, you also have to have another trial of about two weeks where you just try for the sentence, with the jury as the sentencing judge. It’s not easy to describe working on a death penalty case: It’s all these real people with real problems and the loss that they’ve suffered. All the emotions are real and they’re raw, and that’s challenging.”

Every case is challenging, particularly criminal cases, because they involve real people, he said. Whether taking a plea, or charging a defendant or trying a case, the U.S. attorney has an effect on the defendant and victim and a lot of people around them based on his judgment and performance, Davis said.

Nearly all crimes are both federal and state crimes, and many federal and state cases involving drugs, firearms and bank robbery overlap, he said. Crimes involving guns and drugs have a high priority because of their huge impact on the community, he observed.

“I can’t speak for other districts, but in the Western District there aren’t tensions between state and federal agents for the most part. Everyone kind of knows where the best resources are for a particular offense,” he noted.

The U.S. attorney’s office has a drug unit with separate supervision and a Project Safe Neighborhood unit, as well. Davis said federal sentences for crimes are fairly significant and there is no parole as there is in the state system. There are two kinds of cases — investigative cases and agent cases, which are those brought to the U.S. attorney’s office by a law enforcement agency such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Alcohol Tobacco and Fire Arms, the U.S. Postal Service, the Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Internal Revenue Service. Those cases have already been investigated, so the U.S. attorney’s role is deciding in which jurisdiction the indictment should be brought. Investigative cases are those that Davis’ office investigates.

“The great thing about this job is that you get to be a cop and a lawyer at the same time,” Davis said.

Last fall Chief U.S. District Judge Paul L. Maloney selected Davis to replace outgoing U.S. Attorney Charles R. Gross, who took a position with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Davis assumed the duties of U.S. attorney for the district on Oct. 26.

Gross described Davis as “a talented and dedicated attorney” with a long history of faithful service to the Western District of Michigan.

“Don has served this office with distinction, and I take great comfort in knowing that federal law enforcement in the district will be entrusted to his capable hands,” Gross said. 

Davis serves in the post of U.S. attorney at the pleasure of the U.S. president. The president has the prerogative to appoint U.S. attorneys, and the Senate has to confirm the appointments. The Obama administration has already announced that it will replace U.S. attorneys individually one district at a time as the need arises. 

“What I hope to accomplish is that when my successor comes in, I want him to find a very well run and running office that he can feel comfortable just stepping into,” Davis noted.

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