Live from the classroom, some first-year University of Virginia School of Law students witnessed their professor win a man his freedom from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola earlier this month.
“I’m never going to have a class this good again,” joked Professor Thomas Frampton, who allowed students in his Criminal Law class to sit in on the court hearing via Zoom.
Frampton is licensed to practice criminal defense in Louisiana, where one of his recent clients was Nelson Davis, a man who had spent 42 years in prison — until walking free from the state penitentiary Sept. 17, the day of his resentencing hearing.
The details leading to Davis’ conviction on a single count of second-degree murder — a murder for hire — weren’t pretty, Frampton acknowledged. But Davis, whom Frampton said was a “model” prisoner during his time served, was never lawfully sentenced.
“The original sentencing judge gave him a flat life sentence, but didn’t realize he had the discretion to impose a different penalty after those 40 years had run,” Frampton said. “That made it an illegal sentence, which gave us a vehicle to get back into court.”
Frampton asked Judge Laurie A. White of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court to reconsider Davis’ fate — with his 36 students quietly rooting him on.
“They had read the appellate opinion in Mr. Davis’ case, from 1979, when we introduced homicide the day before, without knowing that I represented him or that they were going to see the real Mr. Davis via Zoom the next day,” the professor said.
The students joined Frampton in the classroom as he addressed the court — the Law School course is currently being conducted in person, with spaced seating — then everyone awaited the verdict via their individual laptops. The decision was an emotional one.
“He was way calmer than I was,” Frampton said. “I was nervous up to the very last second. And I teared up when the judge announced what his new sentence would be. The other inmates who had court that day started applauding on Mr. Davis’ behalf, and Mr. Davis was obviously just ecstatic. He’s so well known and so well liked at Angola, that the warden and other prison staff were congratulating him that he was going to get to go home.”
Student Kara Kwart said the unanticipated learning experience added value to her instruction.
“Being able to sit in on this Zoom court case proved to be one of the unexpected benefits of attending law school during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kwart said. “We were able to witness a case occurring across the country that we otherwise would have missed, and this opportunity revealed that the concepts we learn extend far beyond the classroom and have a deeply personal effect that is often overlooked."
Frampton added, “These aren’t just abstract ideas. They’re very real harms people do to each other, and that the state enacts on individuals as punishment.”
He noted that, had the hearing been scheduled before school started, the “field trip” would never have taken place; he would have traveled to the court in person. He filed the brief on behalf of his client in January.
Davis was convicted for the 1976 murder by a verdict of 10-2, indicating some jurors had reasonable doubt. Louisiana courts permitted nonunanimous verdicts until voters in the state passed a constitutional amendment in 2018 to end the practice.
A former Climenko Fellow at Harvard Law School and an expert on the carceral state, Frampton joined the UVA Law faculty over the summer. Earlier this year, his paper “The Jim Crow Jury” was cited twice by the U.S. Supreme Court in Ramos v. Louisiana, the ruling that found partial jury verdicts to be unconstitutional.
While in prison, Davis was a trusty — a person whom guards trust to serve in special capacities, including sometimes outside of prison walls — and took classes geared toward his betterment and release, despite having no clear hope of rejoining society.
“He was 26 or 27 when he went down, so he’s in his late 60s now,” Frampton said. “He is someone whose incarceration long ago stopped making any kind of sense.”
Davis will remain on probation, with his status revocable by the judge based on behavior.
Frampton, who began his career with Orleans Public Defenders after law school, said he will continue to handle some cases in Louisiana.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.