WOONSOCKET — The man convicted in the horrific 2006 rape and murder of 8-year-old Savannah Smith is now a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that seeks to abolish a 110-year-old state law that deems offenders serving life sentences to be “civilly dead.”
Joshua Davis is one of two prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole at the Adult Correctional Institutions who are plaintiffs in the suit, filed several days ago in U.S. District Court by the Rhode Island Chapter of American Civil Liberties Union.
Papers filed in the case say Davis, 34, suffers from a medical condition that requires regular insulin treatments. In 2016, a Department of Corrections nurse administered Davis a contaminated dose of the medicine, potentially exposing him to HIV and hepatitis.
But Davis is prohibited from pursuing legal claims for medical malpractice or battery because he is considered “dead in all respects” under the state’s Civil Death Act, the suit says.
“Interpreted literally, the statute would allow prison officials to waterboard an inmate serving a life sentence and leave the inmate with no legal recourse,” Steven Brown of the R.I. ACLU said. “The irony of the statute is that a person who is sentenced to life imprisonment – and thus legally dead – may be eligible for parole in 20 or 25 years, while a person who is instead sentenced to confinement of 99 years, and not eligible for parole for a longer period of time, retains their civil rights under the law.”
“The statute is archaic, irrational and unjustifiable,” he said.
The Civil Death Act denies inmates incarcerated for life the rights to file suit in court, own property, sign a contract, sue for personal injury – or even file a request for records under the state’s Access to Public Records Act, the ACLU says.
The other plaintiff in the suit is James Lombardi, 35, who was convicted of murdering Krystal Boswell and burying her body in his backyard in Cranston in 2017.
He cut his leg on the sharp edge of a footlocker at the ACI last year and also has potential legal claims against the DOC that he is unlawfully prohibited from pursuing due to the Civil Death Act, according to the lawsuit.
ACLU Lawyer Sonja Deyoe said most of the inmates affected by the statute, unlike the plaintiffs, are serving parolable life sentences and will eventually be released back into society.
“This law is a remnant of a Byzantine era and works directly against any type of rehabilitation these offenders could receive which would better equip them when they eventually reenter society,” she said. “It removes from them all of their civil rights and constitutes a punishment in some respects far greater than is fathomable in an orderly society such as ours.”
Under the Civil Death Act, she said, those affected cannot file suit in state court for even “the most grievous of crimes that are committed against them” in prison, including rape, criminal neglect – even the denial of food and water.
The ACLU said it didn’t know for sure how many states still enforce civil death statutes, but Rhode Island was one of 18 – in 1937. As recently as 1976, a jurist who struck down Missouri’s version of the law declared that the concept of civil death “has been condemned by virtually every court and commentator to study it over the last 30 years.”
A key portion of the state law being challenged reads: “Every person imprisoned in the Adult Correctional Institutions for life shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction.”
Davis was formally charged with the abduction and murder of Smith, a neighbor from the Globe Park area, on May 9, 2006. Two days earlier, he lured her into his car and drove her to a secluded section of Cranston, where he raped, strangled and beat her.
He later pleaded guilty to charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and child molestation. During his sentencing, a state prosecutor reminded the judge that Davis had gruesomely bragged about the murder in a letter from prison in which he wrote about how much “I enjoyed my catch.” And the Superior Court judge who sentenced him referred to evidence that Davis had attempted to hire someone from behind bars to burn down the attorney general’s office and had written another letter warning of possible future attacks on members of the victim’s family.
“If ever there was an individual who warranted Rhode Island’s most severe penalty, it is this depraved and monstrous defendant,” former Attorney General Patrick Lynch wrote in a letter to the court.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo