No matter which route a prospective client takes to see criminal defense attorney Lee Davis, he or she is going to have to climb the steep hill to the East 5th Street house where Davis practices law. However, if Davis takes the person’s case, it will have been worth the hike.
Not only will the client benefit from Davis’ 25 years of experience as a litigator, but he also will have an attorney who will walk with him every step of the even steeper climb to the end of his legal issues. Just ask Twanna Blair. When she came to see Davis in 1999, she was a victim of a home robbery and a witness to the murder of three other people. Before the end of the case 10 years later, Blair’s problems escalated as Bradley County prosecutors charged her with perjury, and then murder, and then pursued the death penalty.
“When we first met her, we didn’t know where the case would go. We just knew she was in trouble. It was unlikely she could afford our office, so we volunteered to sort things out for her. And then she embarked on a legal nightmare,” Davis says. At the top of the precipitous hill Davis and Blair climbed, the judge directed the verdict out and found Blair not guilty of every charge. “The judge said the state didn’t present sufficient evidence to convict her,” Davis says.
The Blair case was not the first time Davis had held someone’s life in his hands. In his first major case as an attorney, he successfully defended a client who had killed someone during a confrontation. Davis was living in Boston and still young in his career. “I didn’t appreciate the gravity of what was taking place until we paneled the jury and tried the case. It was a life changing experience. While we were fortunate to win, as I went through the case, I came to understand I was completely unqualified for something of that magnitude,” he says.
Being ill equipped did not become a hallmark of Davis’ career. Today, he’s a meticulous planner, and he prepares extensively before entering a courtroom. He says being ready to defend a client allows him to have a calm, confident presence before a judge and a jury.
“My goal is to be the strongest advocate I could possible be. And when I’m thoroughly prepared in both the facts and the law, I’m unlikely to be surprised,” he says. Davis has tried close to 200 criminal and civil trials ranging from federal fraud, to white-collar matters, to groundbreaking murder cases. While he’s achieved good results in large matters, he doesn’t see those victories as more significant than the wins in smaller legal actions.
“I recently represented a nurse in Franklin. His exposure was 45 days in jail. His nursing license, his job and his liberty were incredibly important to him. So it doesn’t matter if it’s a murder or a DUI; when a client is standing in front of a jury, and a judge is going to decide what the sentence is going to be, I take those things seriously,” he says. Davis generously credits other people as part and parcel to his success. He and his law partner, attorney Bryan Hoss, have worked together for 11 years, including the Blair case. In addition, they employ a team of paralegals and investigators. “It can take up to a year to prepare for a case. There’s no way I could do that on my own,” he says.
Davis began preparing for his first case in sixth grade as he read Clarence Darrow’s autobiography and decided he wanted to become a criminal defense lawyer. “The idea of one person representing someone in court appealed to me. I went to law school to become a criminal defense attorney. I was never interested in other areas of the law,” he says. A Philadelphia, Penn., native, Davis earned his J.D. at Boston University School of Law in 1986. He began his career in the Massachusetts capital as well. When he and his wife, Heather, married, she moved from Chattanooga to Boston to be with him. She missed her home, though, so in 1992, Davis relocated to the Scenic City.
“All good marriages are 50-50. She moved to Boston for one year, and I moved to Tennessee for the rest of my life,” he says, laughing. Once settled in, Davis met District Attorney Gary Gurbitz and Stan Lanzo, Gurbitz’s trial lawyer. The latter “took pity on a Yankee who had moved south” and hired Davis as a prosecutor for the D.A.’s office. While there, Davis was the first lawyer in the country to introduce mitochondrial DNA as evidence. He won the case. When Gurbitz retired in 1998, Davis ran for D.A. but lost to Bill Cox. He chose that moment to strike out on his own.
Davis’ reasons for choosing the 145-year-old yellow Victorian in which he houses his practice were simple: he wanted to be able to walk to the courthouse, run during his lunch breaks and have a place to which his kids could come after school. Davis’ office on the second story is certainly quiet enough for homework. Mellow music is playing quietly in the background, and although it’s a cool autumn day, a ceiling fan located above him is blowing the leaves of a potted plant on his desk. Davis has placed his desk by the entrance facing the rest of the room, which puts his clients in the center of his office facing the door. In addition, Davis keeps distractions to a minimum. Other than a few credentials on his walls and some neatly arranged family photos, there’s very little décor.
The arrangement of the furniture, the music, the slight breeze and the creaky wood of the old house create a relaxing aesthetic that can set a visitor at ease. The office is a clear extension of Davis’ personality, which remains optimistic, even in the wake of more than two decades of rigorous legal battles that have, at times, involved unnerving situations. “You can pick up the newspaper and read about all of the negative things that happen in life. And that’s true everywhere you go. But there’s such a vibrant and positive culture in Chattanooga. It’s a compelling place to live,” he says.
Davis gets an emotional boost from his family as well. He and his wife, a teacher at Baylor School, have three children, including: Logan, a high school senior; their daughter, Parker, a student at Signal Mountain High School; and Matthew, a sixth grader at Baylor. While Parker has down syndrome, she’s in a regular classroom and is “a real success story in terms of being mainstreamed,” her dad says. Davis is able to spend ample time with his family despite the demands of his career. While the leisurely commute between downtown Chattanooga and his home in Walden helps, having a small, privately owned practice in which he and his partner work together on cases allows him to take time off without getting behind.
Davis and his daughter will be taking advantage of this arrangement as they climb small mountains along the coast of Maine in October. In addition to being a hands-on dad, Davis is active in his community. Davis & Hoss is the sponsor of the annual Signal Mountain Pie Run, in which the top 50 men and 50 women receive a homemade apple pie. The firm also supports a yearly bike camp at which children with disabilities learn to ride a bicycle. Davis was impressed with the results when Parker attended the first camp.
“I spent three years trying to teach Parker to ride a bike, and got nowhere. Then I heard about a group called Lose the Training Wheels, which teaches kids with disabilities to ride a two-wheeled bicycle. We brought them to Chattanooga for our first camp. By the end of day one, my daughter was riding 100 feet. At the end of the week, she rode the Riverwalk to the dam and back,” he says.
Davis also serves on the boards of the Chattanooga Boys Choir and Allied Arts. The word “also” defines Davis’ life almost as much as “lawyer” and “dad” do. For example, he also teaches criminal and constitutional law at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. While he spends this time passing on his expertise to his students, he says the classes benefit him as well. “The students force me to re-examine cases with fresh eyes. I’ll be teaching Fourth Amendment search and seizure, and because it’s brand new to them, they’ll ask questions I’ve never heard. That makes me a better lawyer,” he says. It’s unlikely Davis needs much fine-tuning as an attorney. Not only is he a skilled litigator, he’s developed a healthy perspective on his particular niche, which the general public does not always look upon favorably.
“It’s easy to knock lawyers. But when someone is in trouble, they want a good lawyer, and they want him right away. While we don’t take every case that comes in, if we feel there’s a manifest injustice in a matter, then we can get involved.” Davis is also careful to not pass judgment on his clients or presume to always know the truth. Rather, he says his job is to look at the independent evidence and help his clients assess their options.
“From time to time, a judge will ask me to take a case I find morally difficult, but that comes with the territory,” he says. Even at the end of those days, Davis sees his work as being an important part of the system of justice in the U.S. “When I talk with young people who are interested in going to law school, I tell them that if they’re willing to work and thoroughly prepare for their cases, then there’s ample opportunity for them to practice law. I also tell them they have no business going to law school if they think being a lawyer is simply a good way to make money. But if they want to provide a service, whether they’re a prosecutor or a defense attorney, it’s a great profession.”
To read Davis’ blog on Tennessee criminal law, visit davis-hoss.blogspot.com.