Big Isle resident had hand in historic defense trials
George T. Davis / 1907-2006
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From Nuremberg to the Philippines to California to the White House, renowned San Francisco lawyer George T. Davis was a defense attorney in some of the most celebrated cases in history and a campaign adviser to two presidents.
Davis died Feb. 4 of heart failure on Hawaii's Big Island, where he had lived since 1980, his wife, Ginger, said yesterday. He was 98.
Davis, who graduated from Boalt Hall School of Law in 1931, had connections and clients around the world and once played himself in a movie. He tried cases that made headlines across four decades, placing him among America's most famous trial attorneys.
He ran the Northern California presidential campaigns of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and his wife said he also advised President Jimmy Carter.
Davis' most famous cases were the failed death penalty appeal of California prison inmate Caryl Chessman in 1960 and his success in getting a pardon for San Francisco labor organizer Tom Mooney, who was convicted in 1916. Mooney had been in prison for 21 years, convicted of throwing a bomb that killed 10 people in a Market Street crowd.
After the pardon, Davis joined him in a parade down Market Street, Ginger Davis said.
Davis' clients included Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino, assassinated in 1983; evangelist Jim Bakker, whose ministry was plagued by scandal; and some of the German industrial giants accused at Nuremberg. Davis specialized in high-profile appeals and was not actually part of the Nuremberg war crimes trial.
"He had a wonderful life," said his widow in a telephone interview from her home at Mauna Lani Resort on the Big Island's Kohala Coast.
Davis' connection to Hawaii went back to 1926, she said, when he came to Honolulu as a teenager playing drums and trumpet. As a musician, she said, he got paid top dollar to play with some of the most famous orchestras of the big-band era.
"George had a long love affair with the islands," Ginger Davis said. He had a ranch on the Big Island and was an avid polo player and a Hawaiian-style cowboy, she said.
In the mid-1990s, the Hawaii Senate paid tribute to Davis with a resolution praising his legal career and describing him as a "champion of the downtrodden," a musician, a sometime movie star and a patron of culture and arts.
Davis played himself in the 1956 movie "The People Against McQuade," starring Tab Hunter and James Garner. The movie was based on the real-life case of a man who murdered his philandering wife, but the names were changed for the film.
Davis persuaded the judge to admit a secretly taped conversation of the defendant speaking after taking a truth serum, resulting in acquittal. Ginger Davis said the real case was the first time a recording had been admitted into evidence in a court.
Davis defended clients in more than 200 first-degree murder cases, his wife said, including Aquino, accused by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos' government of murdering a political opponent.
Davis persuaded Marcos to release Aquino from prison and send him to the United States, where he lived in Boston for seven years, lecturing at Harvard, before returning to Manila where was shot down while getting off the plane.
Ginger Davis said she has a photo of Davis and Aquino's widow, Corazon, after she became president, in which she is asking whether Davis was wearing her husband's shoes. Several years earlier, Aquino and Davis had left a San Francisco Japanese restaurant wearing each other's loafers, she said.
In Hawaii, Davis got the flamboyant Sammy Amalu out of prison. In 1962, Amalu almost managed to buy the Sheraton-Waikiki Hotel and other prime Hawaii properties for $75 million even though he did not have any money. The Honolulu Advertiser published Amalu's entertaining letters from prison and later hired him as a columnist. Amalu died in 1986.
One of Davis' most memorable case was the Chessman appeal. Known as the Red Light Bandit, Chessman was on California's death row for kidnapping, robbery and rape. But he had written four books from San Quentin, and his case drew attention around the world.
Davis claimed he could have saved Chessman's life if not for a secretary's mistake.
On May 2, 1960, Chessman was about to be executed, when Davis convinced the judge to grant a stay and ordered the secretary to dial the warden. As Davis told it, she missed a number, and by the time she got through, the gas pellets had dropped.
"George loved people," his wife said. "He didn't care what they did. He was always fascinated by their minds.
"He was a really well-grounded guy who had a great life," she said.
Davis is survived by his wife.