Every city of any size has its flamboyant attorney who lives and practices law out loud, making bombastic statements, courting the media so as to influence public opinion, and generally raising his voice to be heard above the din. Omaha‘s attention-getting criminal defense and personal injury star lawyer is James Martin Davis, who is very good at what he does, which is grabbing headlines, winning cases or making deals, and indulging his appetite for the finer things. He has a rich back story that includes combat action in Vietnam, a stint in the Secret Service, the tragic death of his only son, and his own close brushes with death. Those extreme, vulnerable moments contrast with his public person and it is that dichotomy that attracted me to telling his story. I did this profile a few years ago for The Reader (www.thereader.com), and I am happy to report that Davis is still busily playing the self-styled gladiator role he casts himself in and still living life to the fullest.
James Martin Davis – A Self-Styled Gladiator in the Halls of Justice
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Omaha defense attorney James Martin Davis calls himself “a gladiator” doing pitched battle in the arena of the courtroom, you’re inclined to chalk it up as just so much bombast. His penchant for taking on high profile cases and playing the media with his voluble, quotable, hyperbolic comments, has led him to be dubbed “the prince of the one-liners and the king of the sound bite.” He even enjoys repeating the dig, his jowly, bulldog mug breaking easily into a smile or scowl from behind the big oak desk in his uber office across from the Douglas County courthouse, where he engages in legal warfare almost daily.
He loves to speak about himself. And why not? He knows he’s good copy and knows he can spins stories for maximum effect from his rich life. Whether it’s tales from the courtroom, the battlefield, the White House, the deep blue sea or the mean streets of organized crime, he’s seen a few things in his time.
Not even death can shut Davis up. On June 17 his wife Polo rushed him to Methodist Hospital after he awoke with chest pains. In the ER his heart stopped — twice. Not until the eighth jolt from a cardiac paddle did his ticker restart for good. Classic heart attack. As he likes to recount now, “When I came to I asked a nurse, ‘What happened?, and she said, ‘You died and we brought you back to life.'” Hours after an angioplasty cleared a severe arterial blockage he was already angling with docs to leave the sick house and plea-bargaining to preserve some portion of his now banned nightly cognac-cigar ritual.
Despite the close call he was in the office less than a week later and exactly one week after the incident he was on the road for a case.
He went through something like this back in 1995, when he ended up having a quintuple bypass. His bum heart doesn’t worry him, just as the prospect of death doesn’t scare him. When it’s his time to go, he’ll go. He just wasn’t ready yet. He said as he regained consciousness in the ER and saw all the white coats rushing around, he realized “this was serious.” Even though death was near, he said, “I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t in pain. I was just totally serene. I basically decided I want to live.” Whether he cheated death or not, he knows his number will be up again. He’s just not making any dietary concessions. His vices are too ingrained.
“It’s not going to get me down. Life is to be enjoyed,” he said.
The 61-year-old Omaha native doesn’t mind being called a headline-grabber. His hunger for publicity got a good going over during his Omaha Press Club’s Face on the Barroom Floor induction/roast in 2004. He can afford a sense of humor about himself given his success. Attired in one of his sharp suits, he comfortably wears the image of his own high living figure. With his round ruddy face and gourmand pot belly, he’s the picture of self-satisfaction as he lights up an Arturo Fuente cigar, leans back in his plush chair to draw on it and tells war stories drawn from his experiences in the courtroom and the jungle. The trial lawyer is also a Vietnam combat vet. A great raconteur, he punctuates his mix of flowery and profane speech with emotional inflections and dramatic pauses.
He is one well-cured ham.
“This is not a facade,” he said. “That’s what it is, that’s what I am, that’s what I believe. This is a real, old time lawyer’s office.”
He sees himself in the mold of the Clarence Darrows and F.Lee Baileys of his profession.
The prints depict vintage dockside scenes of his beloved Bahamas, where he vacations fours weeks a year. Scuba diving caves, blue holes, James Bond dive sites, shark waters and Spanish Main treasure wrecks is one of his many indulgences. Hunting quail, pheasants and wild turkeys is another. Besides the Caribbean, he enjoys traveling to Europe, Florida and an annual Las Vegas pilgrimage.
Always one for the action, he said, “there’s never been a period of total calmness in my life. I’m not an adrenalin junkie, but by the same token I like doing things that are interesting and exciting. God gives you a cup when you’re born and it’s up to you to fill it…”
“He does like to be in the middle of the action,” said U.S. (D-Neb.) Sen. Ben Nelson, a frequent hunting companion of Davis’. “He does have a high energy level.” Nelson’s known Davis for 40 years. They were in the same law school class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “He is still the same Jim Davis I met the first day in law school back in 1967,” Nelson said. “Still a go-getter, a character, with a great sense of humor. Very outgoing. Can be the life of the party. But a very, very sincere, good friend as well.”
As for his large appetites, Davis said, “I suppose a lot of it is maybe never growing up. You know, playing war or playing cops and robbers, only doing it for real.”
Davis ends his days with a nightly repast of cognac and Graycliff cigars, which he smokes at $25 a pop. “My monthly cigar and cognac bills are more than most people’s house payments,” he said with a mite too much of a smile.
All around him are artifacts from his “full life.” There’s a faded Polaroid of his Army combat brothers in Vietnam. At the end of the ‘60s he did a year in-country, leading a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP)-trained team that infiltrated enemy lines to insert sensors on trails frequented by the Viet Cong. Then, from a safe post, his team monitored the devices. Once the sensors were “tripped” and VC movements confirmed, his team called in artillery fire on the positions. It was part of a classified Army intelligence project whose “black bag” jobs gave him top secret clearance and the autonomy to work outside the normal chain of command.
There are signed pics of him guarding heads of state as a Secret Service agent in the early ‘70s, when he was assigned the Nixon White House and had run-ins with chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, whom he recalls as a “flaming ass hole.” At various times Davis protected the President, the First Lady, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a plethora of ambassadors. He was in Washington when Watergate broke. Other images show him with some of his mover-and-shaker friends.
Prominently on view is a portrait of his and his wife Polo’s late son Jimmy, who was killed in an auto accident at 16. Recounting the loss brings Davis to tears in the course of a long conversation.
A framed front page of a newspaper is emblazoned with the results of an organized crime strike force Davis led in Indianapolis. Finds from the scuba diving trips he makes, including cannon balls, a pistol and coins, lay inside a glass case and atop a credenza. A pedestal displays a copy of a book he authored on conducting raids.
A reminder of what makes possible his living so well is a plaque that reads, “Show Me the Money.” This tough opponent and loyal advocate is a pricey defender of right. “I charge a lot. I’m expensive,” he acknowledges. Although he represents folks of lesser means and does some pro bono work, he has just as many well-to-do clients — doctors, lawyers — that he bills full-rate. If someone has trouble affording his fees, he said he tells them, “I suggest you go to your family or friends or Mastercard or Visa or your bank to borrow that.”
He also moves in circles of power that seem at odds with his persona as a “champion” for the underdog, although he sees no contradiction in railing against the system in one breath and buddying up to establishment figures in the next.
A failed Democratic candidate for Congress in 1996, Davis is on the party’s short list of prized race horses each election cycle, but publicly says he’s sworn off making another political bid. Still, with good friends like Nelson bending his ear, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Davis did run again given his high visibility and gift for gab.
Davis is known for the unabashed way he speaks his mind, whether addressing juries, judges, prosecutors, witnesses, clients or reporters. He doesn’t mince or parse his words. Instead, he tells you exactly where he stands and usually has the facts to back it up. That quality is what made former Girls and Boys Town executive director Rev. Val Peter retain him to defend GBT from sexual abuse allegations.
Peter said he found Davis to be “very bright, very thorough. He knows what he’s looking for, finds it, will report it accurately…unvarnished. And I like all of that. I like frankness. I like real honesty. He’s just got a way for getting at the facts.”
Davis’ live-out-loud style can rub some the wrong way. No one, however, questions his Legal Eagle status. He’s known for doing his homework. The few times his cases do go to a jury trial, he puts up a fierce defense and his cross examinations are legendary, as his withering assaults can break witnesses in the box.
“It’s entertaining to watch but it would not be pleasant to be on the receiving end of that,” said Patricia Bramhall, a former prosecutor turned-defense-attorney who was co-counsel with him in the GBT cases. Bramhall said he’s also quite effective in front of juries. “He’s got a natural ability to just say what he wants to say and you-can-take-it-or-leave-it. He’s articulate.”
Last year, Davis said, he went 6-0 in trials.
“The knock is that he is flamboyant and outrageous, but when he gets in the courtroom he’s very well prepared and very professional,” said Douglas County prosecutor Leigh Ann Retelsdorf, who’s opposed him in numerous cases over two decades. “He does a good job for his clients.”
Bramhall, who squared off with him in the past, said, “You have to bring your A-game” against him. “He keeps you on your toes. It’s a challenge.”
Still, Retelsdorf said, “as an opponent he can sometimes drive you crazy because he’s pretty flamboyant.” Some might even call what Davis does grandstanding. “Some might,” Retelsdorf said, “but, you know, I don’t think he stands alone in that. That’s become more the trend the last 10 years for defense attorneys. You see them more on television…using the media. Of course from my perspective I don’t like it. As a prosecutor I’d rather try the case in the courtroom.”
When you listen to Davis’ first-hand accounts of war or front-line law enforcement work or hear his tirades against miscarriages of justice you realize he really believes he’s a do-gooder. The irony, Retelsdorf said, is that its prosecutors like herself, working on behalf of victims, who typically think of themselves as champions of the people, not attorneys representing criminal defendants.
Clearly, though, his credo of being a gladiator for the people is not an abstraction or pose. First as a soldier running special ops, then as a Secret Service and undercover agent, once passing himself off as Wise Guy “Jimmy D,” and then as a young Indianapolis prosecutor heading organized crime and police corruption task forces targeting “stone cold bad guys,” he put his life on the line for his God, his country, his commander-in-chief and the leaders of the free world.
For him, his work today as an Omaha defense attorney is an extension of that public service and a continuation of the good fight. It provides the action he craves, although the only real danger he faces now is being cited for contempt.
“When I joined the Army I took an oath to protect and defend the constitution of the United States,” he said. “Well, there wasn’t any ending date on that oath. I took the same oath as a lawyer. While the money is collateral, I’d be doing this if I was making one-tenth of the money because what I do and what a jury does is important. We the People have to have a champion because the whole history of the world is that governments treat rights like privileges. They think they give them and they can take them away. Well, we don’t receive rights, we have them, they are ours, they are inalienable.
“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance and that’s why you have to have lawyers. We’re the buffer between the government and the people. It’s no different then when I was out in the jungle placing those sensors. I’m a sentinel, a listening post out there on the perimeter guarding against improper government encroachment.
“So when I step in the courtroom or talk to the press, I’m not just defending my client, I’m protecting all of us. That’s my job. That’s how I see myself — as a gladiator protecting We the People. I like being that gladiator. I like going into the courtroom. That’s the Roman Arena. That’s where you walk in with your sword held high to protect the people from the lions. That’s what I do…liberty’s last champion…”
Vietnam gave this warrior survival skills for life.
“I was shot at in the air and on the ground. I was blown off an armored personnel carrier twice. I was motored, machine gunned, rocketed and gassed. I had a lot of close calls,” he said. “And I made it out, you know? I’ve never been afraid of anything since. As we combat veterans say, ‘I’ve been to the jungle and seen the elephant.’”
“I never thought I was going to make it back…so I feel every day I have is a gift. I always wanted to do something with my life before Vietnam, but after something like that it just kind of energizes you and it makes you different than other people and it makes you know you’re different. Not better, just different.”
He isn’t so much defined by Nam as he uses its experiences as a gauge and guide. “Part of who I am and what I’m about is what I learned in Vietnam,” he said. “I learned some major lessons over there.”
Drafted upon completing his bachelor’s degree at UNL, Davis and his fellow law school classmates had no interest in joining the military.
“I had been a snob before…an elitist. I looked down on them” (the grunts) “from the Ivory Tower of college. I will never do that again because I discovered in Vietnam the measure of a man is not governed by how much education he has or his status in life. It’s governed by a simple equation, When it comes down to those fundamental situations involving life or death, will you be able to trust your life with this man? Does he have his shit together?
“If he had it wire tight, man, you wanted to be with him. If he didn’t…you didn’t care how educated he was, how rich he was, you didn’t want to be around him. And that is as much a rule I follow in my life now as I did then.”
He sizes up people. Clients, witnesses, juries, opponents, prospective staffers. If you can, as a sergeant in Nam put it, “keep your ass in the grass and do your job,” you’ve got his respect. The stress of combat laid it all out on the line.
“It tests people’s character,” he said. “You know, the Japanese have a saying — You only live twice: once when you’re born and once when you’ve looked in the face of death.”
Having been to the jungle and seen the elephant, he said, gives him advantages.
“A big part of it is instincts. I knew in Vietnam if and when I was going to get hurt. I knew when to go down a trail and when not to. And that’s something you’re born with. One of my strong points is cross examination. I know when to stop asking questions. I know you never ask the question you don’t know the answer to. I know when I’m going to be hurt and when I’m not.
“I know where I’m going to score pay dirt as I’m going. Whether it’s reading that person’s aura or body language or it’s being intellectually incisive, I don’t know. I don’t understand that gift. But I can plug into those things. I like to say it’s radar. You pick up blips and you’ve got to subliminally be able to interpret those blips.”
It’s the same knowing which cases to take to trial and which to cut a plea bargain deal for with prosecutors. “Again that’s instincts. I take the one I think I can win.”
“He’s smart about that,” Retelsdorf said. “He knows what battles to fight and what battles to concede.”
Davis’ feel for the terrain and taste for battle are two of his selling points with potential clients. “I found the way to keep clients happy is if they have confidence in you and they know you’re going to fight for ‘em.” he said. “That’s what they need and that’s what they want, and they sense that.”
“I don’t care what they’ve done,” he said, “my job is to see if I can have them found not guilty. If I can’t, then I have to do what’s in their best interests — either get some of the charges dropped or try to reduce their sentence or try to get them probation, file a motion to suppress evidence or maybe get the evidence thrown out at a preliminary hearing or get the case dismissed.
“There are times when people are falsely charged or over charged. There’s a lot of misjustice in this system. The people I represent are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty and I’ve got lots and lots of not guilty verdicts. The two sweetest words in the English language are ‘not guilty.’”
He feels Matt Robinson is an example of a criminal dependent being railroaded by an overzealous county attorney. The 17-year-old Gretna youth drove a car with two friends in it the night of December 28 when the vehicle spun out of control and crashed near 180th and Platteview Road, leaving the two passengers dead.
Robinson is charged with two counts of felony motor vehicle homicide. Sarpy County attorney Lee Polikov says speed and alcohol contributed to the fatal crash. Davis asserts that while alcohol was in the vehicle, Robinson was not impaired at the time of the incident. Moreover, he says Robinson and his friends were fleeing a threat made by other youths. Davis has released a cell phone voice mail recording of an alleged threat made to Robinson in the hours before the crash. According to Davis, Robinson and his friends were being chased at the time the crash occurred.
Robinson has publicly apologized for his role in the tragedy but contends he should not face jail time. Davis says the circumstances in the case dictate the charges should not exceed misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide, adding Polikov “has made a crusade of this” as part of a crack down against reckless driving. “He’s out there arguing this political battle using my client as a tool for zero tolerance.”
Folks come to Davis when they feel wronged by The System and need a guardian for their rights. Allegations of misconduct often find him at odds with the Omaha Police Department. “I get two or three calls a week at least where people allege to have been beaten up by the cops,” he said. “I like the cops, they’re my very good friends, but there are people on there that overstep their power.”
In April of ’05 a political refugee from Togo named Koko Sessou was shot multiple times by Omaha police officer David Brumagen for allegedly driving his vehicle towards Brumagen, a second officer and others. Soon after Davis took the case he called a press conference to claim he’d produced physical evidence and witnesses that contradict the version of events tendered by police and other witnesses.
As the Sessou and Robinson cases illustrate, Davis is not averse to using the media to make points and air client grievances. Prosecutors may not like it, but as attorney Patricia Bramhall said, “he has a knack for it.”
Take the recent case of Monte Williams. On the night of November 26 the Omaha man was being arrested when Omaha Police officers noted he was hiding crack cocaine in his mouth. When he wouldn’t expel the drugs, he was allegedly shocked 10 times from a Taser gun operated by officer David Erickson. Soon after the event, Davis went on the offensive, suggesting to reporters the Williams case was part of a pattern. “The question is, is the Omaha Police Department Taser-happy?” he said. “People are getting Tasered all the time when they don’t need to be,” Davis told The Reader. “When I said OPD is Taser-happy, that’s on the heels of a whole lot of complaints of people being Tasered.”
He said since rouge cops “don’t seem to be prosecuted, the only way you can” expect the OPD to clean its own house “is to file claims or suits against the city.”
Erickson, the officer accused of abuse in the Williams case, has since resigned from the force, but OPD offered no explanation whether his leaving had anything to do with the accusations against him. While Davis is glad to have Erickson removed, he said the police’s handling of the incident and the officer’s sudden departure leave too many questions unanswered, something he says happens too often.
“Accountability and disclosure are two of the most important concepts there are to have a free government, but the way the police operate is just horrible in terms of investigating complaints,” he said. “Somebody files a complaint against a police officer and they never know what happens. They’ll get a note saying it was unsustained or unfounded or that it was sustained. So what? You don’t know whether the guy was punished, unless he was fired or suspended. Why? The police will say it’s illegal for us to discuss it. Bull fucking shit.
“The only reason they don’t discuss it is because this Goddamned police union is so strong that they negotiated a contract that says it’s going to be confidential. They’re not the CIA. They’re not Homeland Security.”
He terms “a mistake” the elimination last year of the city’s Independent Auditor post by Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey after auditor Tristan Bond issued a report critical of police conduct. “It’s a power play the police want” to avoid an independent, transparent review process, he said. The idea the police can honestly monitor themselves, he said, is specious: “They can’t self-regulate themselves.”
Courting the media to call out injustice, he said, “is part of the role I play. So many people are afraid of the media. I’m not. They’re not going to screw me if I don’t screw them.” It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship” — in the quid pro quo sense. “I do have that rapport with the media. I try to help them if it’s not going to hurt my client. I bird dog stories for the World-Herald and all the TV reporters. They know they can trust me. I’m not running for office and I don’t have any ulterior motives.”
However, Davis does represent now or has represented before some of Omaha’s leading media figures, ranging from KETV news anchor Julie Cornell to former KFAB announcer Kent Pavelka to Z-92 radio on-air personalities Todd ‘n’ Tyler. In these instances he acts as a kind of quasi agent, reviewing contracts and advising talent what they’re worth in hard market terms.
Then there’s the fact Davis is a sometime journalist himself. For years he’s written a Veteran’s Day op-ed piece for the Omaha World-Herald. He also had military and diving articles published in the Herald’s now defunct Magazine of the Midlands and in such publications as Soldier of Fortune.
His writing has extended to two books, Raids: A Guide to Planning, Coordinating and Executing Searches and Arrests and Top Secret: The Details of the Planned World War II Invasion of Japan and How the Japanese Would Have Met It. He said he’s half-way through penning a new book on treasure wrecks of the Spanish Main.
Given his cozy relationship with the media, it’s no wonder then he finds it a cop out when his colleagues clam up around reporters.
“Lawyers will say, ‘Well, I can’t talk about this because it’s in litigation.’ That’s bull shit. There’s all sorts of things a lawyer can talk about and should talk about with respect to his cases and there’s things he can’t talk about. Most people don’t have the knowledge or instincts to know where to draw the line and so they don’t say anything at all and that just aggravates the press because they know differently.”
He dismisses the notion he’s in love with fame.
“I know that’s been projected out there,” he said, “but I don’t take myself seriously. You can’t. I’m not that important.”
He said the vast majority of his media presence is due to “my clients, not me.”
By the same token he does put himself out there an awful lot and does seem to track stories filed on him, including a profile KM3’s Mary Williams did on him last fall that pleased him. The piece portrayed him as “Omaha’s Shark” in a sweeps tie-in with the NBC dramatic series Shark about a high profile attorney.
Todd Murphy of Universal Information Services, an Omaha media tracking agency, said Davis was mentioned 232 times in a 2006 sampling of area television/radio news casts. That’s a “high” figure by any measure, said Murphy, but pales in comparison to the “broadcast hits” Mayor Fahey and State Sen. Ernie Chambers netted — 1,165 and 583, respectively — in the same period. Davis’ print hits are also high.
Media exposure, including appearances on “Todd ‘n’ Tyler in the Morning,” can only help Davis drum up new business. “I’m recognized everywhere. What people say to me a lot is, ‘If I ever get in trouble, you’re going to be the man to see.’ It’s gratifying,” he said.
The recognition is hollow compared to what he would prefer in its place.
“When my son Jimmy died it was the worst thing that ever happened in my life,” he said. Jimmy, his only son, was killed when the car he was driving hit a patch of black ice and spun out of control and crashed. “I’ll never be the same again, ever,” Davis said. “I mean, you gotta go on, but there’s a hole in my heart that will never be filled. I would give up everything I have — everything I’ve told you about, doubled or tripled, just to have him back. I would trade all of it — the money, the fame, the success…”
Davis has moved on to fight another day. It’s what a warrior does.
“I’ve been to the jungle and seen the elephant.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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