`Words can't explain. ... That was my only brother.'

Anguish haunts family in accidental shooting

July 27, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

Tattoos cover the backs of Antonio Davis' hands. When he clenches his fists and holds them together, the black-ink script reads "R.I.P TAY" and gives his brother's dates of birth and death.

"So I will always remember," Davis says.

Davis, 21, is to be sentenced soon in the accidental shooting death last year of his older brother, Tavon "Tay" Lawson, 22. He'd been playing with a handgun when it fired a single bullet that struck his brother in the head, according to police reports.

In February, Davis pleaded guilty in Baltimore Circuit Court to involuntary manslaughter and a weapons violation, charges that together carry a maximum possible prison term of 13 years.

Nadine Lawson has begged Circuit Judge Paul Smith not to send Davis to prison, causing her to lose a second son.

"I've got a good son, and he made a bad mistake," she told Smith, between sobs at an April court hearing. "To send my son away and have him deal with his grief all by himself - it wouldn't solve nothing. It would make everything worse."

Davis has been reluctant to speak about the case, giving only brief interviews and saying that he might deserve to go to prison. But he said he doesn't want to break his mother's heart again.

His attorney, Sharon DuBey, is seeking probation, saying that Davis, who has no criminal record and has been depressed and remorseful since the accident, has suffered enough.

Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Phelps acknowledged that this is "a heartbreaking situation." But she said Davis needs to be punished for his "grossly negligent conduct" and has asked Smith to impose a sentence of eight years in prison, with all but three suspended.

The judge has held several hearings on the case, and he hinted at the most recent one, on June 15, that he might agree to the defense request for probation. He ordered that a psychiatrist evaluate the depths of Davis' depression and to offer a treatment plan.

In many cases, judges - and sometimes prosecutors - look at accidental deaths with a more sympathetic eye than they do with the more obvious criminal shootings.

Last June, Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy spared a man who said he had accidentally shot and killed a boy who'd been trying to break into his shed. Ronald Edward Johnson Sr. instead received five years of probation and 100 hours of community service.

That same month, a Howard County judge sentenced Benjamin M. Allen, then 19, to 11 weeks of jail time, 73 days of home detention, three years of probation and 3,000 hours of community service for accidentally shooting his schoolmate. The young woman survived but had medical complications.

And Baltimore County prosecutors agreed in 2004 to drop charges against Miles Smith Sr., a grieving father whose 4-year-old son had found his father's loaded, illegal gun and shot himself to death. Instead, prosecutors arranged for Smith to make public service announcements about the importance of locking up firearms.

By all accounts, what happened Feb. 1, 2005, was an accident. Davis described what happened in an audio-taped police interview, a transcript of which has been reviewed by The Sun:

Davis, Lawson and a cousin were watching television that afternoon in a small bedroom at their grandmother's house in Waverly. The three had smoked marijuana. Lawson lounged on the bed, talking on his cell phone to his sister.

Davis began playing with a .45-caliber gun that he said his cousin had acquired for protection after the home was burglarized. While loading and unloading the bullets, a single shot went off.

It struck Lawson in the head.

Davis said he panicked. He hopped out of a second-story window and hid out at his girlfriend's for a day.

"I was scared and then never been in a tight situation like that," Davis told the detectives.

The next day, Davis went to see his brother at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

He said his good-byes. Then he turned himself in to the police officers waiting in the hallway.

In the taped police statement, Davis explained his relationship with his brother and sister. All three have young children of their own. Davis' boy, Antonio Davis Jr., is 3.

"We struggled for real our whole life," Davis said about his upbringing. "We was like a father to each other. His father wasn't around, and my father wasn't around. So anything we did it was either for the kids or for each other or for the family, our family."

Their mother, Lawson, 40, lives in a gated apartment complex in Randallstown, and Davis frequently stays with her.

"I never would have been able to make it through this without her," he says.

His mother has never made him feel guilty about the shooting, he says. She has never even asked him about it. "She just told me, `You don't have to say anything. I know,'" he says.

Lawson explains further: "There's nothing he can tell me that I don't see in his face."

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