Donald Davidson arrived on Florida’s Death Row on Sept. 25, seven days after Judge Don Lester sentenced the sexual predator for one of the county’s most-disturbing murders.
Davidson’s life will continue until the executioner puts a needle in his arm.
Life also will go on for the people left in the wake of a horrific afternoon that shook a community.
A mother was choked and stabbed to death in a bathroom.
A daughter was assaulted in ways that made the most-hardened investigators cringe.
A son was traumatized to find his mother.
A grandmother wept for nearly five years, hugging a stuffed animal that triggered so many memories of what used to be a happy, functional family.
And a State Attorney’s Office found more relief than satisfaction after being steadfast in its conviction that Davidson must die for his actions.
“He deserves to be on Death Row,” said State Attorney Melissa Nelson. “Whenever we make the decision about capital cases, I believe, we all believe, every murder is not the same as the next murder. Some are heavily mitigated; some are very aggravated. This was the worst of the worst. That’s what the highest court in the land said the death penalty is reserved for. We all feel this defendant was the worst of the worst.”
L.E. Hutton was the lead prosecutor for the state. His case seemed like a slam-dunk. Davidson admitted to most of his crimes. He pled guilty to avoid a trial with the hope of earning some leniency with a life sentence.
Hutton never flinched. He remained committed and unapologetic. Nothing, he thought, could explain Davidson’s actions of Dec. 1, 2014, when he cut the GPS monitor off his ankle just 72 days after being released from prison for another sexual assault, entered Roseann Welsh’s Middleburg home, attempted to rape her before strangling her with his shoelace and stabbing her in the neck. After that, he raped her 10-year-old daughter and assaulted her, both at the home and after he took her in Welsh’s van. The 13-year-old son came home to find his mother in the doorway of the bathroom.
“He offered to plead guilty for a mandatory life sentence. It was rejected. That wasn’t an option,” Hutton said. “I have two daughters the same age as the victims in this case. Obviously, I have a wife. I cannot imagine coming home one day from work and being presented with this situation and try to deal with it.
“My thought was, this is what this guy deserves. This is what the law says. This is what the facts demand. He deserved the death penalty.”
The prosecuting team still needed to show Lester the aggravating factors that warranted the death penalty. They also felt compassion for the children. They made their key points during the sentencing phase and submitted all of their evidence, but they kept most of the gruesome details from open testimony.
“We wanted to protect the children as far as being able to have them on the stand and personally testify about the acts that were committed, the impact on them,” Hutton said. “At the same time, it was important the judge understood all of the evidence that was related to the case. We did that both through the video tape of his statements to law enforcement. There was also an interview that was done with the daughter that same night, both done by the detectives and separately by the child protection team. There was also a separate interview done with the son. Those were all recorded. It’s a little bit unusual because it was recorded, therefore the judge, even though we didn’t present those or play those in the courtroom, they were entered into evidence. The judge was able to review those. He knew a lot more information than what we put into the actual courtroom.”
He knew what Nelson’s team knew: Donald Davidson was a monster.
“The facts were really horrific,” Nelson said. “Anytime we have homicide cases that involve children as this did, it touches you probably in a different way. I think every time somebody is murdered, the impact on the family is tremendous. Crimes were committed against one of the children. They not only lost their mother – one of them found their mother that way; one suffered herself – the brutality, the fear of being kidnapped and the brutality of being sexually assaulted.
“In the sentencing phase, it’s still our burden to prove the aggravation and the aggravating factors. So, that’s why you saw, essentially, a trial that looked a little different than a trial on the merit, but it included all of the facts and circumstances. Much of the aggravation was found in the act of the facts and circumstances.
“We work cases every day for life sentences. This was so aggravated, (Hutton) was right, it destroyed a family. It will live with these kids for the rest of their waking days. I don’t know how you can reconcile sentencing in this case the same way we review sentences of other cases. It’s set apart in of itself because of the heinousness.”
Asst. State Attorney Pam Hazel is appointed to Clay County. She also was part of the prosecution team. And like most, she admitted this case left an indelible impression on her.
“There’s a lot of things that we see that you can never set aside,” she said. “When I go home to my family, I try my best to turn it off for a while. When you lay down at night to go to bed, there are some nights I don’t sleep a full night because I wake up thinking about the cases and what I need to do and how I can make the case better, how I can seek justice for the person. That’s the difference. There are times when you’re a normal family when you do things with you family, then you’re laying down at night to go to sleep and it comes back up.”
All three expected Davidson to be sentenced to death. The facts were too clear.
Lester agreed, saying: “The appropriate sentence is death.”
According to Davidson’s attorney, Mark Wright, said Davidson was “not surprised that this day happened the way it did.”
Nelson’s team has the dubious task of prosecuting other defendants. Some will be charged with horrific crimes. Horror seems to come in all manners.
But they admit Donald Davidson was especially troubling. The only other defendant on Death Row during Nelson’s two-plus-year tenure at the State Attorney’s Office is Donald James Smith, a 62-year-old man convicted of killing and raping 8-year-old Cherish Periwinkle in Jacksonville.
“This was not just personal to us, but to the people of Clay County,” Hutton said. “This was a crime that shocked people. I’m sure it instilled fear to think it could happen in your community. In this type of law and order community we have in Clay County, it was personal to them.”