The force is against him

A detective—and his department—could face trial.

At the jail booking desk where he'd been bringing in handcuffed perps for most of his adult life, it was the detective answering the personal questions this morning: Name, height, weight, age. Then profession.

"Retired," said 6-1, 200-pound, 55-year-old Earl Martin Davis in a gravelly voice.

The booking officer eyed the husky figure in a dark suit. The mustachioed man he and other officers knew as Sonny Davis had hauled hundreds of petty thieves, gamblers, rapists, and murderers to jail; now he stood with them on the wrong side of the law, accused by his department of theft.

OK. "Retired," the officer typed. He left the rest of the line blank.

It was a small gesture for a cop of 30 years. Besides, he indeed had retired, and his profession was no state secret. A few days earlier, the headlines still shouting his name, homicide detective Sonny Davis had left the department. A fellow officer had accused him of stealing, then returning, $10,000 from a crime scene. An hour earlier on this day, May 5, Davis was arraigned at the courthouse across the street, pleading not guilty to first-degree theft.

He was released from jail on his own recognizance. Today, facing anywhere from a few days to 10 years behind bars, the goal is to keep from going back.

To do so, Davis is relying on a one-line defense: "It never happened." Though the prosecutor's office has discussed a plea bargain that could lighten any sentence, Davis is currently—with a judge's permission—poring over copies of the prosecutor's incriminating documents and evidence at his home, studying them for defects and helping his attorney construct his defense. As of now, the cop is going to trial.

It essentially will be Davis' word vs. that of his accuser: former partner and 20-year cop Cloyd Steiger. Steiger claims to have watched Davis stuff 10 $1,000 bundles into his pockets on October 1, 1996, while inventorying a homicide scene at Gideon-Mathews Garden apartments, a Seattle Housing Authority facility. The day before, resident Bodegard Mitchell had shot and wounded an SHA electrician and then, during a standoff, wounded a police officer before he was killed by police.

Steiger says when Davis allegedly found the money in a sewing cabinet, he offered Steiger a cut, which he angrily refused. Under pressure from him, Steiger claims, Davis and a supervisor, Sgt. Don Cameron, returned the cash to the crime scene the next day and logged it as evidence. It was later returned to Mitchell's kin. (Cameron has not been charged.)

If the best version of truth is to be determined by pitting Steiger's word against Davis', several attorneys say, a jury would have to conclude one is lying. On that simple basis the defendant is favored, posing the likelihood of a hung jury or a finding of not guilty by reasonable doubt. A jury might also be forgiving as well of someone who, as even Steiger says, returned the money and apologized.

Among the factors working against Davis is that as a cop he is accused of, in addition to theft, violating his public trust, and it's difficult to predict a jury's reaction to that. More pressing—and more important to the prosecution—is the potential testimony of more than a half-dozen police officers to whom Steiger says he related the incident as it unfolded. Though arguably hearsay evidence, their testimony, if believed, could underpin Steiger's solo claims.

Detective Christine Krupar, for example, avers Steiger told her of the theft the next morning at coffee. She says she urged him to go to internal investigators. Instead, Steiger says he had it out with Davis and Cameron in the homicide office. Another detective, John Boatman, says Steiger told him of the theft after that shouting match.

Later that morning, Davis and Cameron allegedly returned the money. King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng claims to have an independent witness—a Housing Authority worker—as well as evidence-log documents, to support that contention.

Worried about his own job, Steiger says, he made no formal complaint to the department's Internal Investigations Section. (Nor did any of the other seven detectives who'd caught wind of the claim.) But nine months later, Steiger says he did contact the IIS, telling them only that Davis had a drinking problem. Davis was subsequently transferred to a desk job.

Davis' attorney Tony Savage denies the alcohol allegation and says no IIS report was made about the theft simply because the theft never happened.

The field-leveler may be Sgt. Don Cameron's potentially persuasive testimony. Supervisor to both Davis and Steiger, Cameron was investigated but not charged and has retired from the department without disciplinary action taken. So far, Cameron has maintained the accusations are untrue and has indicated he would not testify for the prosecution.

An unknown factor in the case—should it go to trial—is the scandal itself: how the alleged theft was hushed up (counting Davis, Steiger, and Cameron, 13 police officers reportedly knew all or some details of the alleged incident); how the two-and-a-half-year-old claim evolved publicly into charges only through what Steiger says was a recent casual conversation with a prosecutor; and how the incident threw a revealing spotlight on widespread problems within the department and the IIS—some aspects of which are now being reviewed by a newly appointed mayoral panel.

For sure, those internal police malfunctions will be on trial with Sonny Davis. They're at the crux of his defense, contends Davis' attorney. "I hate to do it, but I will have to bring that up," says Tony Savage. "All of it."

No trial date is set.

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