No Gun, No Self-Defense

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Lewis Conway Jr.’s widely reported version of why he killed a man is at odds with public records and witness

Corrected Friday October 26, 2018 8:50am to correct the chronology in the assault

Lewis Conway Jr. making his campaign kickoff speech. ©Jana Birchum 2017
Lewis Conway Jr. making his campaign kickoff speech. ©Jana Birchum 2017

When a charismatic figure emerges and spins an inspiring story of sin and redemption it provides a nearly irresistible impulse to willingly suspend disbelief.

That’s the power of fiction.

Fiction about what happened the night that Lewis Conway Jr. murdered Derrick LaMont Davis has been swallowed whole by journalists and regurgitated repeatedly in print, on television and via the Internet. (See accompanying story: Media Gave Conway a Free Pass.)

His less than completely true tale even inspired a KLRU-TV television profile that includes a brief but dramatic reenactment of his unsubstantiated version of what happened that night.

In Conway’s widely reported version of events the night he killed Davis: Davis had a gun. Conway stabbed him in self-defense. Conway turned himself in.

Public records and a key witness indicate Conway’s version is far from true.

Austin Police Officer Dennis Farris, c. 2012
Austin Police Officer Dennis Farris, c. 2012

Dennis Farris was the first police officer on the scene that night. He vividly recalls the details because it was his first homicide case. He had previously worked five years for the University of Texas Police Department and was nearing the end of his probationary year as an Austin cop.

The Austin Police Department’s sworn affidavit for arrest and detention states, “On the 4th day of August, 1991, at approximately 6:36pm, Austin police officer Dennis Farris, Badge 2175, responded to a call of a stabbing at 1800 Patton Lane Apartment 110 and upon his arrival he located the victim, later identified as Derrick LaMont Davis, laying in the doorway bleeding from the chest area.”

Conway has stated that after stabbing Davis, he called the police. That’s not in dispute. Officer Farris said, “I got it as a 911 call. I don’t know who called us. … The enhanced system for 911 wasn’t then what it is today.”

When Farris arrived at the apartment, he said, Conway was standing there. “He tells me the victim is right there. The victim was on the ground, in the doorway. I could see the stab wound on the left pec (pectoral muscle), left of the breastbone. He was stabbed smooth in the heart, not a very big wound. He’s gasping for air. I asked him, ‘What happened?’

“He said, ‘He stabbed me,’ and pointed out the door, square at Conway.”

“EMS gets there and I walk out and take Conway into custody.”

EMS personnel transported Davis to Brackenridge Hospital for treatment, but he expired in surgery at 7:31pm, the affidavit states.

This story does not include Conway’s comments because while his first response to a request for an interview was positive, he later declined.

Was there a gun?

Farris, who went on to serve 25 years with APD before retiring as a senior police officer, said, “We found no weapons in the house, nothing to indicate to me or to the homicide detectives this was self-defense.”

Nor is there any mention of a gun or self-defense in the 102-page murder file (linked below).

The warrant dryly states, “Sergeant John Jones, assigned to the Austin Police Department Homicide Detail, arrived at the scene and conducted an ‘on scene’ investigation into the incident which include interviewing witnesses and the suspect. Sergeant Jones learned that the suspect and the victim had gotten into an altercation earlier in the day about Davis allegedly stealing money from Conway. The two met up with each other again at 1800 Patton Lane Apartment 110 and according to witnesses, Conway pulled out a knife and stabbed Davis as he stood up from the sofa. Neither subject resided at the apartment which is occupied by Dennis Raymond, an acquaintance of both men. A knife was found at the scene and it is believed to be the weapon used in the incident.”

“The suspect was taken to the police department where he was further interviewed by Sergeant Robert Merrill, Badge 424. Conway gave Sergeant Merrill a written confession admitting he stabbed the victim in the chest with a knife because the victim had stolen money from him earlier in the day.” (The written confession was not in the murder file but a copy has been requested.)

An autopsy conducted the next day ruled the death a criminal homicide caused by a stab wound in the chest.

“He was filed on for murder,” Farris said. “It was a murder. He murdered him. He said he turned himself in. He didn’t. I caught him.”

“The reason it sticks out is he was first person I took into custody for killing someone,” Farris said.

The commitment order states that the morning of August 5, 1991, Conway went before a magistrate and was charged with the offense of intentional murder, a first-degree felony, and bail was set at $25,000.

Conway was jailed from the time of the murder until September 24, 1991.

The file contains the report of the grand jury that indicted Conway for murder for intentionally and knowingly causing the death of an individual Derrick Davis by stabbing him in the chest with a deadly weapon, to-wit: a knife, that in the manner of its use and intended use was capable of causing death and serious bodily injury.

Conway’s attorney Ben Florey negotiated a plea bargain. According to the Judgment and Sentence of the Court dated April 6, 1993, a jury trial was waived. Conway pled guilty to a lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and credited for the 52 days he spent in jail when first arrested.

“Somebody needs to speak for the victim,” Farris said. “Since I’m last person he ever talked to, I think I have a responsibility there for the victim and his mother.”

Murder wasn’t his first offense

Conway avoided conviction on two previous violent offenses because the victims failed to show up for court.

Since Conway was not convicted he would have no reason to bring up these cases. It would not be in his best interest.

But these cases show that Conway was no stranger to violence the night he killed Davis.

Terroristic threat—The first offense was committed when Conway was a 19-year-old college student. The arrest warrant states that on October 27, 1989, he made a “terroristic threat” on another student by shoving and pointing a pistol at Chiedu Eneanya with the intent to place him in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.

Eneanya’s sworn statement says, “I had just played a tennis game and as I was leaving the court area a male later identified to me by school administrators at Huston-Tillotson College (later renamed a University) as Lewis Conway Jr. shoved me from the back and, pointing a pistol at me, he said, ‘I will blow you up, motherfucker.’

“When I refused to fight him he gave the gun to another man who left. He went to his dorm and I went over there to try to find out what he had threatened me for. He pulled a knife on me and shoved me and I went to tell security about it. They did not do anything so I called the police department. Security got upset that I had called the police department and cancelled the police so I went to the police station and reported the incident. When he pointed the gun at me and threatened me I was afraid he would shoot me.

“The next day I was in my car leaving the St. Edward’s campus and Conway pulled up next to my car and pointed a shotgun out his window at me and said, ‘Why did you call the cops yesterday, motherfucker?’ A police car drove by and he put down the gun and drove away.”

An arrest warrant was issued for Conway November 7, 1989, on a charge of making a terroristic threat, a Class B misdemeanor. Bail was set at $1,000 and he was released.

Ultimately the case against Conway was dismissed June 22, 1990, because despite being subpoenaed the victim did not show up in court.

Assault with bodily injury—On August 1, 1990—just 40 days after the terroristic threat case was dismissed, and three days a year before he murdered Derrick LaMont Davis—Conway was charged with assault with bodily injury for hitting Shelton Smith in the head with a club, a Class A misdemeanor.

The warrant for Conway’s arrest includes Smith’s sworn statement “that he was sitting on a bus-stop bench at 6th and Congress in Austin, Travis County, Texas, when three men who he used to attend school with walked up to him. One of them asked if Smith remembered them, and Smith said he did. At that, Conway struck Smith in the side of the head with a club and David Arnold grabbed Smith and held him down so that he could not stand. While he was being held by Arnold, ‘Chaney,’ the third subject involved, struck Smith in the side of the head with his fist.”

The officer who swore out the arrest warrant said, “I observed and photographed a large swollen knot on the left side of Smith’s forehead above the left eye. He also complained of pain to the left jaw.”

On August 29, 1990, Conway was charged with assault with bodily injury. Bond was set at $1,000 and he was ordered to appear in court September 19, 1990. The case was reset several times and the state requested a continuance because “the state’s witness is unavailable.” Ultimately the case was dismissed.

Threatened to kill a man?

Flash forward to the current campaign cycle and Conway admittedly stepped out of line when on September 26, 2018, he confronted a former campaign worker at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Center immediately following a forum for Districts 1 and 3 City Council candidates.

Chivas Watson
Chivas Watson

Chivas Desmond Watson, age 31, said has been homeless for much of the time since being released from seven months in custody at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle. He has a long criminal record and is currently serving six years on probation for a second offense of assault on a family member.

Watson was attracted to Conway, who is employed as a criminal justice organizer by Grassroots Leadership. The mission statement on the website states the organization “works for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation and criminalization are things of the past.”

In a late night interview that lasted nearly four hours, Watson told The Austin Bulldog he met Conway at an August 2017 meeting of Texas Advocates for Justice, one of the programs sponsored by Grassroots Leadership.

He said he volunteered to work on Conway’s campaign, which according to the website is in part based on the issue of Criminal justice reform.

Watson said he knocked on doors in the Craigwood neighborhood and co-hosted a one-time podcast. Starting in April 2018 Watson worked Sunday afternoons in Givens Park on a program Conway called Register With Conviction, which sought to get formerly incarcerated people registered to vote.

Watson was usually accompanied at Givens Park by Rachel Zuniga. While he circulated and sought to build rapport with those who frequented the park, she stationed herself at a picnic table, ready to discuss issues and concerns with all who came by.

Watson said he was taken aback when on one occasion at Givens Park, on June 24, Conway showed up with Christina Muhammad and a contingent of orange-shirted 10,000 Fearless First Responders. Watson said he tried to dissuade Conway from continuing because those who frequented the park would be alienated. When Conway persisted, Watson quit the campaign.

Watson said he later sought advice from others in the campaign and was advised to talk to Conway.

Zuniga said that made sense, because the two men had a history of having “tough conversations” and then getting over it.

They had another run-in after a July 17 Texas Advocates for Justice gathering at Sam’s Bar-b-cue, where Watson said he had been hired to coordinate events.

“It was very cordial throughout the meeting,” Zuniga said. “So when Chivas (Watson) stepped out later no one had concerns.”

Watson said he told Conway he wanted to come back to the campaign. “I apologized, said I’d spoken to Christina Muhammad and cleared it up.”

Instead, Conway got in his Explorer, shouted an insult and drove away.

Watson said he went to Conway’s wife, Nicole Conway, who was still there, and told her he was trying to make peace.

Later that night Watson and Zuniga went to Conway’s home.

Zuniga said, “We had been to their home many times.”

“The garage door was half open and I knocked on it,” Watson said.

Conway shouted for his wife to call the police, Watson said.

“I was in tears,” Watson said. “I was telling myself it’s over. I was shaking when I got in the car.”

Watson said the morning after that incident, management warned him to stay away from Grassroots Leadership, where he had been volunteering, and told him not to attend meetings of its programs, “because he had threatened Lewis and Nicole.”

“I said I didn’t threaten them. He was going to call the police.”

Separated from not only the campaign but his volunteer work at Grassroots Leadership, Watson nevertheless vowed to attend every public candidate forum where Conway would appear. He arrived at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Center shortly before the September 26 candidate forum ended and stood in the back of the room.

Watson says he wanted to know if he was welcome to attend a meeting of Texas Advocates for Justice that was scheduled after the forum and he called to ask Annette Price—statewide coordinator for Texas Advocates for Justice and Conway’s former campaign manager. “Annette had messaged me to come. I called to ask if I was welcome,” Watson said. “I didn’t leave a voice message or a text message.”

At the end of the candidate forum, Watson said, he saw Conway put on his jacket and quickly make his way through the crowd to get to him. “He stepped close to me and said, ‘Fight me you bitch,’ and whispered, ‘swing, swing.’ ”

Two police who attended the forum intervened and ushered us into the hallway, Watson said.

According to Watson, “Lewis, with his back to the wall, said, ‘Bitch, I’ll kill you.’ ”

Witnesses won’t speak about it

Reverend Sylvester Chase Jr.
Reverend Sylvester Chase Jr.

The Reverend Sylvester Chase Jr. of Wesley United Methodist Church was at the candidates forum that night and witnessed the what happened between Conway and Watson.

“Only thing I know is it was a confrontation,” Chase told The Austin Bulldog in a phone interview October 18. “Let the police handle it. They were on the scene.”

Did the reverend hear a death threat?

“It was a confrontation. That’s all I’ll say. Plenty of people were around.

“It wasn’t out of hand. No one got killed. No one got knocked down. No one got shot. Ain’t that beautiful?”

Others who witnessed the confrontation included District 1 candidates Reedy Spigner III and Natasha Harper-Madison. Spigner did not return multiple telephone calls and text messages requesting comment. Harper-Madison said, “There’s legal action and I respectfully decline to be interviewed about it.” She would not clarify what legal action she was referring to.

Despite Reverend Chase’s upbeat take on the confrontation, the police are taking it seriously. An October 25, 2018, email from the Austin Police Department’s public information office states: “Below is the information received from the violent crimes supervisor. ‘Information should not be released at this time. It is an ongoing investigation.’ ”

Conway apologized later that night

On a Facebook post the night of September 26, after the confrontation with Watson at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Center, Conway was sitting next to his wife Nicole on a couch. Following an introduction of about 45 seconds, he spent the next several minutes of a 21-minute video talking about and apologizing for his behavior.

This is a transcript of what he said about the confrontation:

“I gotta be honest, so I tell the truth, right? We always said we’re going to tell the truth and not going to hide anything. So tonight I kind of stepped out of character a little bit at the forum.

“There has been an ongoing issue with a certain individual. This individual has shown up to each forum, he showed up to our home, he showed up to events, and tonight he kind of showed up and I kind of stepped out of line, so I apologize.

“I apologize for people for seeing me in a light that I’m not proud of, but knowing your wife has been threatened over and over, you’ve been threatened over and over, you know you just kind of get to a point to where we try to do it the right way, you know, we tried to engage Sister Cristina over and over. We tried to engage alternative methods and finally we had to result to calling 911.

“And it’s just been, you know, for someone that doesn’t, you know—not that I don’t support law enforcement—I just think there are ways for us to work around it. So when I tried to work around it it’s just been hard. So this is just me being transparent and me being honest and us being, you know you’re supposed to tell the truth.

“There has been an ongoing stalking issue that we’ve been quiet about, we haven’t said anything about it. There’s been an ongoing issue at every forum, you know, every time we’re in public this guy shows up and he wants to engage. So tonight I stepped out of character and I approached and I confronted him.

“You know, after standing in the back of the room and threatening me, uh sorry (shrugs shoulders), it’s just coming from the kind of backgrounds we come from, again, running for office was not part of my parole plan. So I get that I’m a public official. And I get—I even hate to say it (turns head over shoulder toward Nicole) I don’t want to sound like (inaudible). I get that part, I get that there are going to be people that attack us. But, you know, when it consistently comes to your home and it comes to where you are, you know, I’m not in the same boat as everybody else. Right? Folks are going to attack me simply because they want to test whatever they think it is.

“I’m so friendly (shaking head). I don’t want no trouble. I’m friendly (inaudible, laughs), right. I really am. So anyway, this is us about being honest. That’s not why we checked in. This was spontaneous. I apologize for that. We came here to talk about the barbecue fundraiser.’ (That part ends at about 4 minutes on the video).

Unanswered questions

Among the questions that would have been put to Conway—had he agreed to be interviewed—is to ask him to confirm whether Chivas Watson was the person he had referred to in the Facebook video as the “certain individual.”

He would have been asked to explain how he had been threatened, how his wife Nicole had been threatened, and to show proof of these alleged threats, such as witnesses, voice messages, text messages, or emails.

He would have been asked if he’s accusing Watson of stalking for showing up at candidate forums or is there something else?

He would have been asked how many times has he called the police about Watson, knowing that he is on probation and it might cause him to be reincarcerated?

Most importantly, he would have been asked: did he threaten to kill Watson?

But there will be no answers for this story.

Conway’s last response to the request for an interview was via email at 4:08pm October 23. He wrote: “I understand and appreciate you reaching out to me. I respect your integrity in at least doing that. I’m used to articles being written without our input, so that’s not unique or problematic.”

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Assault With Bodily Injury File, Offense No. 90-3697252, Cause No. 200289 (26 pages)

Murder File, Case No. 0914028 (102 pages)

Terroristic Threat file, County Court Cause No. 330460 (19 pages)

Texas Department of Public Safety Criminal History Conviction Search for Lewis Conway, Jr. (2 pages)

Texas Department of Public Safety Criminal History Conviction Search for Chivas Desmond Watson  (11 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

Media Gave Conway a Free Pass: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, October 25, 2018

Trust indicators:

Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981. See more on Ken on the About page. Email [email protected].

Who funds this work? This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help support this independent coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution.

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