Miami Prosecutors Quietly Drop "Solved" 1986 Cold-Case Murder Charges

The office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle (left) dropped the murder case against Rickey L. Davis.
The office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle (left) dropped the murder case against Rickey L. Davis. Miami-Dade SAO / Miami-Dade County Department of Corrections
In 2014, Miami-Dade County prosecutors said Rickey L. Davis was a killer. State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's office, working with Miami-Dade Police, announced it had determined Davis had strangled then-26-year-old Joycelean Burrows to death in Liberty City in 1986. Reporters blasted Davis' mugshot all over the press and claimed new DNA evidence had solved the case after nearly 30 years.

But last month, prosecutors quietly dropped the murder case against Davis without saying a word to the public. Davis is a free man. And his lawyer, Stephan Lopez, says Rundle's office has not yet told Davis what happened.

"Throughout my entire career as a defense attorney, when they’re going to drop something, they call me," Lopez tells New Times. "When they're going to drop something as simple as a DUI case, they tell me. But I never got that here."

Representatives for Rundle's office told New Times yesterday they could not immediately comment on why prosecutors abandoned the case. Prosecutors have confirmed there is no final "close-out" memorandum explaining why they abandoned the case.

But in January 1986, Burrows was found strangled to death in a vacant Liberty City lot on NW 59th Street at NW 22nd Avenue. Davis, who knew Burrows, was almost immediately considered a suspect, though he wasn't the only man police interviewed at the time. Lopez says Burrows had other acquaintances she had publicly fought with in the past. (One other man who fingered Davis for the crime later failed a polygraph test, though polygraphs are notoriously unreliable.) A witness told police that year that Davis had allegedly been seen washing what looked like blood off of the back of his truck shortly after the murder.

But Davis has said for the past 28 years that he did not kill Burrows. And at the time, Davis' lawyer says, police said there was no DNA evidence linking Davis to the crime. Lopez says cops swabbed Burrows' fingernails and body and also claimed there was no semen evidence on Burrows linking her to Davis. The cops even swabbed Davis in 1986 — but turned up nothing.

At the time, DNA technology was virtually nonexistent in criminal cases. Though police debated charging Davis, they ultimately declined. The case then sat for 28 years.

"They said there was no phosphatase, a chemical in semen," Lopez says. "Literally none."

In the meantime, Davis was convicted on separate burglary charges in 2001. As part of that case, law-enforcement agents entered his DNA samples into a statewide database.

Miami-Dade cold-case investigators then, for reasons that are not yet clear, retested the evidence in the 1986 Burrows strangulation. Lopez says that despite the fact that his client was told there was no DNA linking him to the murder, MDPD shipped the case's DNA evidence — including alleged semen evidence — to a crime lab in Virginia for testing. That lab said the evidence matched Davis. MDPD then arrested him, and Rundle's office filed one first-degree murder charge against him May 17, 2014.

Lopez then began preparing a defense. He hired his own expert witness, Kevin Noppinger, a DNA evidence analyst who has testified on behalf of multiple South Florida police departments, including the Broward Sheriff's Office. Per Lopez, Noppinger said in a recent deposition that he believed it was impossible for the same DNA results to come back negative in 1986 and then positive in 2014.

The case comes at a time when the value of DNA evidence is being questioned in law-enforcement cases nationwide. While many forensic experts still say DNA is useful for clearing suspects whose DNA does not match crime-scene evidence, many experts say false positives are common in cases where prosecutors rely too heavily on DNA evidence. In 2016, BSO's crime lab temporarily halted some DNA testing after a series of Broward-Palm Beach New Times reports about that lab's mishandling of evidence. (A whistleblower in 2016 warned the BSO crime lab was likely using incomplete DNA to charge people with crimes.) The Davis case also comes at a time when Rundle, who has been in office for 25 years, is receiving increased criticism over her seemingly selective handling of police-shooting and government-corruption cases.

As for Davis' case, Noppinger never had a chance to testify because Rundle's office dropped the case this past August 17 without so much as a peep. And now a baffled Lopez says he simply wants to know why.

"Nothing happens for 28 years, and then, in 2014, Rickey Davis gets arrested for that murder on that same DNA evidence?" Lopez asks rhetorically. "The same evidence they said didn't exist? This was a shit-show case from the beginning."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.