Lowell Since '45
The Richard Murder: The Wrong Man?
The Richard Murder: The Wrong Man?
Police reform groups often worry that high-profile murders put so much pressure on local PD that there is a rush to arrest whoever they can, if only to quell the public outcry and put a checkmark up on the board. The 1986 arrest and conviction of 19-year-old Arthur Davis for the murder of Patricia Richard was such a case.
On Sunday morning February 10, 1985, Lowell police officer James Clarke was walking the beat when he came across the bloodied and partially nude body of 23-year-old Patricia Richard in a small alcove just off the steps to Lowell City Hall. Having given birth just 10 days before, Richard had been savagely beaten and left for dead the previous night. The high-profile murder, which took place less than 100 yards from the police station, put enormous stress on Lowell PD. Four days later, the police got their confession from a manic depressive 19-year-old --- but from the start, the suspect’s actions and statements seemed so bizarre that there were real questions about whether they had the right man. Prosecutors would get a conviction but 33 years later, when crucial evidence was tested with new DNA methods, Arthur Davis would walk free, quite possibly serving time for a murder he never committed.
At the start of the investigation, police naturally retraced the steps of Ms. Richard, who had left her newborn with her sister and visited three Lowell bars on the evening of Saturday the 9th. Bartenders and patrons reported that Richard drank beers and was in good spirits, showing pictures of her baby to friends. She was last seen leaving McCullough’s on Middlesex Street at 1:20 AM after last call and was not seen again until the discovery of her body the next morning.
The arrest of Arthur Davis seemed strange from the beginning. An openly gay 19-year-old nurse with no criminal record, Davis lived at 49 Willow Street with his mother and sister. He suffered from manic depression and what was then known as multiple personality disorder. Police were claiming that Davis attempted to sexually assault Ms. Richard and that he later voluntarily walked into the station and confessed to the crime, despite the fact that there was no signed confession or written record of what must have been a grueling ten-hour interrogation.
And as Davis’s statements to police became known, the confession seemed ever more unclear. Davis was all over the lot when asked about his activities on the evening in question. At first, he claimed he was at the nearby Rainbow Bar with a friend. Then he put himself closer to the crime scene, saying he had been cruising the City Hall area looking for a tryst. At times, he referred to a man named “Skipper,” which also happened to be Arthur’s nickname. Davis claimed that he saw Skipper knock Ms. Richard’s head against a concrete wall, killing her in the City Hall alcove. Sometimes he said he was Skipper and other times he claimed Skipper was someone else. Then his story changed again. He said he had been calling his mother from a payphone near City Hall and had seen the killer run across the street, acting strangely.
Thirteen months later, in the courtroom, Davis was still changing his story, saying that he had stumbled upon the killer and the body in the City Hall alcove and that the killer had threatened to murder his family if he said anything. Onlookers began to ask, had the police caught the killer entangled in his own lies or had they simply ensnarled a mentally disabled attention-seeker to fit their bill?
Police and prosecutors chose to believe the most convenient story, the one that would get a quick conviction. And when they found blood on a Newport cigarette butt at the scene that matched Patricia Richard’s blood type, they were in business. A search of Richard’s apartment also produced a pool cue with matching blood and again police seemed to choose the easy way out, dubiously arguing that the cue must have been the murder weapon. To be sure, Davis didn’t help his own cause, as his emotional instability seemed to lead to increasing attempts to gain attention. In court, a friend reported that Davis claimed, “I killed her for a red and white polka-dot dress.”
But just because the police had a convictable man, didn’t necessarily mean they had the right one. Professor David Siegel of the New England Innocence Project, the group that would help reopen the case in 2018, said that Davis “was young, mentally disordered and he had a personality that was attention seeking. That combination was incredibly dangerous.”
Even observers in courtroom 10B at the Middlesex County Courthouse in March of 1986 sensed something was amiss. Rick Spencer, a columnist writing in the Lowell Sun commented that “if you could have walked out of there any afternoon and honestly said you weren’t confused then you weren’t paying attention to what Arthur Henry Davis was saying.”
Nevertheless, on March 26, 1986 a jury of eight men and four women sent Arthur Davis to prison for life without parole. Davis showed no emotion as he was led away in handcuffs on his way to Walpole State Prison where he would spend the next 33 years.
Two years ago, the Massachusetts Innocence Project, using a 2012 state law that gives defendants the right to have forensic evidence tested with modern methods. spent months trying to get Lowell Police to do DNA tests on items in evidence. Sure enough, the DNA on the pool cue, the cigarette butt and a number of other crucial pieces of evidence did not link Davis and Richard at all.
In the end, just four days of police investigation led to a man who seemed more troubled than guilty serving some thirty-three years in the penitentiary, an indictment on a system that sometimes seems more intent on satisfying the public than catching those responsible.