This article originally appeared on the website, www.masslive.com.
Great Barrington teen Matthew Whalan writes about ‘freedom’ on death row
By Jenn Smith, The Berkshire Eagle
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. (AP) — Monument Mountain Regional High School junior Matthew Vernon Whalan wasn’t even born when Jimmy Davis Jr. was sentenced to death row for murder in the state of Alabama in 1994.
But Whalan, 16, has grown up with Davis’ story, as told by Whalan’s grandfather, Jack Lahr.
Lahr, a retired Washington, D.C. attorney, took on Davis’ case in 1999, with the belief that Davis did not receive a fair trial.
Today, Davis still sits on death row, and Lahr is still working on the man’s case.
Now, Whalan, an aspiring writer who has only written fiction and poetry until this point, is working on a book about the lives of the two men, and the topic of what it means to be free.
“I really wanted to write about freedom, philosophy and forgiveness as well,” he said. “It’s about the idea of whether someone can be free in the mind, even though they’re trapped in a prison cell.”
With full support of his parents and guidance counselor, and with the legal advice of his grandfather, Whalan has been corresponding with Davis through letters. The Monument student says he’s already written 40 pages of what will be a non-fiction narrative.
In December, Whalan also has plans, through the help of a grant, to travel to Alabama to where Davis grew up and allegedly committed the crime; and to Toledo, Ohio, where his grandfather studied and was raised.
Whalan has already written a preliminary article, “Jimmy Davis Jr. and My Grandfather,” which was published in a Berkshire-produced online news publication called “Red Crow News.”
In it, Whalan tells readers that Jimmy Davis Jr. is an African-American man who was charged with capital murder for the 1993 shooting and killing of a service station attendant named Johnny Hazel, during an attempted robbery.
Whalan also details how there is a lack of physical evidence and eyewitness accounts linking Davis to the crimes, aside from the plea bargains of three other men arrested in the case. Davis, who was 22 years old at the time of his arrest, tested at an IQ of 77. He has been sitting on death row in Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala. for the past 17 years.
Whalan’s work shows a great amount of research and thought, and the high schooler concedes that the time he’s committed to it may have put a damper on his regular course work. He says he also knows the legal implications of writing about Davis.
“Anything I write is going to end up on a prosecutor’s desk,” he said. “I know it’s really risky.”
During this interview, Whalan took a few silent moments to thumb through about a dozen, neatly hand-written pages on which Davis disclosed details of his life. Their exchanges have been more about childhoods, football and faith than about Davis’ case.
“It amazes me how free he seems, despite his circumstances,” he said.
Which is why, he said, he will continue to write the stories of Davis and Lahr.
In the Red Crow News, Whalan wrote, “For all of this time my grandfather’s moral compass has led him to fight for honesty and to preserve human life, and that too, is an original form of freedom.”