#NC11: From Military Prosecutor To Congressional Candidate

Sep 7, 2020

For Air Force Colonel Morris Davis, a career military lawyer, the assignment he won in 2005 could solidify his opportunity to become a general.  The North Carolina native – and now the Democratic candidate for North Carolina’s 11th congressional district -- was named chief prosecutor of the alleged al Qaeda terrorists imprisoned at the US Navy base in Guantanamo, Cuba where they were subject to military justice. 

Davis embraced the challenge, likening his assignment to the prosecutors who brought Nazi war criminals to trial at Nuremberg after World War II.  The tall, physically imposing officer quickly earned a reputation as an aggressive, by-the-book prosecutor inclined in frequent press conferences to trash-talk opposing lawyers and to mock the prisoners, most of whom had been captured in the months after the 9/11 attacks on Afghanistan’s battlefields or in CIA operations.

“Initially I thought he was overly aggressive,” said Miami lawyer Neal Sonnett who was assigned by the American Bar Association to monitor the military tribunals to assure appropriate legal treatment for the prisoners.  “We didn’t get off on good footing,” Sonnett said in an interview.

He objected to Davis publicly comparing the prisoners to vampires whom he would “drag into the sunlight where they would melt.”  When a defense lawyer sought sympathy for a Canadian-born prisoner who, at age 15 had run away to go to Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist training camp, Davis retorted: “He didn’t go to that camp to learn knots and eat smores.” 

In Sonnett’s view, by ridiculing the defense lawyer and playing to the news media, “I thought [Davis] had crossed a line.”

Still, Davis charged ahead.  Recalled journalist Jane Sutton, who covered the trials for the Reuters news service: “He believed in the tribunals; he believed that what he was doing was right. Then he changed his tune.”

Just two years into his job and on the verge of his first trial, Davis suddenly quit. 

To understand why Davis walked away from what had been his dream job is to understand much about the personality, beliefs and character of the 62-year-old man his friends call “Moe.” It explains in part his decision to seek a congressional seat to represent much of Western North Carolina, including Asheville and Buncombe County, in a campaign that includes sharply personal attacks on his young opponent, an expressed loathing for the president and even denigration of religious leader Franklin Graham whose father, Billy Graham, was a regional icon. 

If there is a consistent thread in Davis’ life story that has taken him from a small town in North Carolina through multiple military postings around the globe and landed him in Asheville as a political candidate, it is a willingness to be the non-conformist, to take the path that others didn’t – then to risk losing the ground he’d gained to be true to his deeply held principles.

He grew up in Shelby, about midway between Asheville and Charlotte, where he acquired a soft southern accent, a talent for acoustic guitar and a love of hunting, fishing and NASCAR racing.

His father was a disabled veteran of World War II, and medical treatments took the family frequently to the Veterans Administration facility in east Asheville, not far from where Davis currently lives with his wife, Lisa.

Davis was able to attend Appalachian State University on scholarship available to children of disabled veterans.  He earned a degree in criminal justice and picked up extra cash working as a bail bondsman available to spring other college students from local jails where many were taken for violating local laws against alcoholic beverages. 

He went on to study law at North Carolina Central University -- a historically Black university – and was awarded a law degree in 1983.  His decision to enroll in NCCU was primarily financial, Davis said in an interview for this article.

“I qualified as a minority student [at NCCU] because I am white, and so my tuition and a stipend were paid by the state,” he said.  But he added that his experience there shaped his racial views, both for his ability to feel comfortable in racially mixed situations and to respect minorities who faced challenges that, as a white man, he didn’t.  “I always felt welcome there,” he said of his years at NCCU, “it was never an attitude of us versus them.”

He said he also noted that in moot-court competitions staged among other law schools, his Black classmates “always had to be just a little bit better; they had to work harder to be on the same plane [as white law students].  And they’ve done it.”

As a newly minted lawyer, Davis said he chose to enter the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General corps for two reasons, first in tribute to his father’s service and second because he could immediately get trial experience.  (His first case placed him in opposition to a more experienced JAG lawyer, Lindsey Graham, now a U.S. Senator from South Carolina).

Over the next two decades Davis rose steadily through the ranks, earned two more masters’ degrees and ultimately was named deputy commander of the military JAG school.  He was admitted to practice in the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as in specialized military courts.

Retired Air Force Colonel Tom Strand, now a city council member in Colorado Springs, served with Davis during this period and said two things stood out.  The first, Strand said, was Davis’ willingness to challenge higher authority when he believed he held the right position. 

Second, Strand continued, “I thought Moe always was inclined to want to understand an individual’s personal plight.  He wanted to consider things like whether they grew up in poverty, if they were minorities, if they faced difficult problems.

“I thought that made him uncomfortable as a prosecutor because he could sympathize with the guy who had problems,” Strand said.

These traits came to the fore in his assignment to Guantanamo where Al Qaeda captives from what the George W. Bush administration called the “global war on terror” were held in newly built prisons awaiting disposition of their legal claims.  Davis became the third JAG lawyer assigned by the administration to prosecute those who allegedly participated in or supported the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America. 

He said he was thrilled by the assignment and wanted his work to take its place in history alongside the Nuremberg Trials, which were noted for even-handed justice.  Some of the accused war criminals were acquitted, which many historians cite as a testament to the trial’s judicial restraint.

“We look back with pride at those trials,” Davis said.  “I wanted our kids to look back on Guantanamo in the same way.” 

In the eyes of his superiors in the administration, Davis‘ tenure as chief prosecutor started well.  Davis was regarded as a forceful advocate for the tribunals and for the detention facility, which had drawn criticism from many human-rights organizations.  To those who compared the Guantanamo facility to a concentration camp, Davis scoffed.  He said that during his years bailing college students out of county jails near Boone he saw conditions far worse than those experienced by most captives at Guantanamo.   

Two of his superiors put him on track for promotion to brigadier general.  But one of those superiors suddenly demanded something of Davis that he believed he couldn’t give.

“I was being pushed to use evidence obtained by water-boarding” prisoners, Davis said.

It was already well known that water-boarding was included in the administration’s so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” to obtain information from captives.  It entailed strapping a prisoner to a horizontal board and pouring jugs of water on the prisoner’s face, evoking a fear of drowning, until the prisoner confessed. 

For Davis, the issue wasn’t just that water-boarding had been regarded as torture for millennia by virtually every authority other than the Bush administration. His concern was the knowledge that confessions obtained from prisoners during water-boarding wasn’t reliable.  “Torture is a great way to get somebody to talk,” Davis said, “but it’s not the way to get the truth.”

As a prosecutor ethically bound to build a case based on reliable evidence, he said he had no choice but to refuse his superior’s order to use information obtained in that way.  As Davis later explained his action under questioning in one of the trials: “The guy who said water-boarding is ‘A-OK’, I was not going to take orders from.  And I quit.”   

The decision stunned many who had viewed Davis as a hardliner, a man trained to carry out orders.  “He was military and there were [other prosecutors] who were doing things that I knew they didn’t agree with,” recalled Sonnett, the American Bar Association’s independent observer.  “People who did what Moe did had lost their careers.  I came to respect Moe for his ethics and his principles.”

Retribution came quickly, at least initially.  He was denied a Defense Meritorious Service Medal because, according to a performance review, “you quit your post when you were needed because you did not want to be supervised by a superior office with whom you had a difference of opinion.”  But that blot on his record was later mitigated when he was given an even higher award, the Legion of Merit for “extraordinarily meritorious conduct,” by the commanding officer of the military’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. 

Sutton, the Reuters correspondent, told the AVL Watchdog that it took awhile for people to understand Davis’ turnabout.  “While he was prosecutor, the human-rights community treated him like a Nazi, then he went to the other side.  He said, ‘When you’re in the middle of the road you get hit from both sides.’”  Davis recognized that his hopes of making general were dashed and he retired from the Air Force a year later. 

But he quickly landed a position as head of the Congressional Research Service’s Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division.  He also used his detachment from the military as an opportunity to speak and write about his growing opposition to the Guantanamo tribunals, which struggled to find legal ground between the war-focused military justice system and the broader rights afforded to defendants in federal courts. 

When Davis wrote opinion pieces for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal criticizing newly elected President Obama for failing to reform this process, he was summoned to meet with a superior unhappy with this outspoken staffer. 

“It never occurred to me that what I had written was problematic,” he said in the interview for this article.  “My director said if I admitted that I had screwed up, I would keep my job.  But that wasn’t what I believed.  I defended my right to free speech.  But he passed a letter to me saying that I was fired.”

Ironically, the American Civil Liberties Union that had been critical of Davis as the Guantanamo prosecutor rose to his defense and brought suit on his behalf.  Though it took six years, Davis won a settlement expunging his firing and awarding him $100,000 in damages. 

Although the lawsuit took aim President Obama’s policies toward the military tribunals, Davis said the president apparently didn’t hold a grudge.  “He later invited me to come to the White House to discuss Guantanamo.”

Davis’ willingness to fight his firing also won him the backing of former Urban League President Vernon Jordan, who helped Davis land a faculty position at Howard Law School in Washington, DC, where he remained another four years.   From 2015 until his retirement last year, he served as an administrative law judge with the U.S. Department of Labor adjudicating cases involving labor law violations, employment discrimination and black-lung disability.  Perhaps best known is a ruling he issued in the summer of 2019 ordering Enterprise Rent-a-Car to pay a $6.6 million fine for alleged racial discrimination in hiring, training and promotion in its Baltimore offices. 

Davis moved to Asheville last year and, after surveying the field of likely candidates for the congressional seat then held by Republican Mark Meadows, he decided, “I had the strongest credentials to take him on.  I was disappointed when he dropped out of the race because I thought he was an easy target.”

Republican-nominee Madison Cawthorn brings a dramatic contrast to Davis in age, achievements and beliefs.  At 25, Cawthorn is running for what would be his first job as an adult, though he lists himself as CEO of a real-estate investment corporation with no other employees.  He was homeschooled and, after suffering serious injuries in a car wreck in 2014, attended one semester at an evangelical Christian college in Virginia before dropping out with poor grades.

Yet the charismatic Cawthorn has won the backing of Meadows, now the White House chief of staff, and President Trump.  He spoke at the Republican National Convention in late August.

Among the expected policy differences on such issues as abortion rights, universal access to health care and gun rights (Cawthorn wants few, if any, restrictions while Davis argues for strong background checks, red-flag laws and a ban on assault weapons without a government permit), the two candidates differ sharply on racial reparations.  After both the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commission approved reparations resolutions apologizing for slavery and committing to correcting racial inequities, Davis immediately gave his support and said he would also call for a federal policy.

Cawthorn said the Civil War had provided sufficient reparations for Blacks and those who sought more payments – including Blacks and “white liberals” -- were themselves racist.  The Republican candidate also charges that Davis was “a champion of the rights of terrorists” because of his stance against using evidence obtained by water-boarding – a charge Davis said is rebutted by his record as the Guantanamo prosecutor. 

The Democrat’s path to victory, much like the mostly-rural 17 county district, is regarded as a steep climb by political odds makers.  Republicans out register Democrats by more than two-to-one.  But Davis’ hopes lie with unaffiliated voters – those who aren’t registered in either major party – who make up a slight majority of the total.  To this group Morris points to his record of challenging presidents of both parties – George W. Bush and Obama -- as a mark of independence.

And on social media, he makes no effort to win the backing of two significant voting blocs in the district: Trump supporters and evangelical Christians favorable toward Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham who lived in Black Mountain.  Davis’ loathing for the two men was evident in a tweet posted in April after Franklin Graham had said in a Fox interview that COVID-19 was “God’s wrath” for human sins.

“If Franklin Graham is right & COVID-19 is God’s wrath for sin, then [blame] the Sinner-in-Chief @realDonaldTrump, the most immoral, incompetent and corrupt President in American history, a habitual lying, porn shagging, narcissistic, draft dodging demagogue.” 

When Graham appeared at a rally in Asheville prior to the pandemic, Davis joined a counter protest with a sign bearing the words: “The Christian Profit, Franklin Graham,” deliberately misspelling “prophet.”  He tweeted a photo of himself with the sign and wrote: “Moe @ the Franklin Graham Klan rally and flock-fleecing…”   

In the first of the candidates’ debates, Davis said he greatly admired Billy Graham and had consumed many of his works.  But he said his son was profiting from his father’s reputation by taking a salary exceeding $1 million annually from organizations.

Above any single issue, however, Davis is counting on a majority of the district’s voters to value his decades of high-level experience over party affiliation.  He misses few opportunities to demean Cawthorn’s lack of work experience, his unfinished college education and his reliance on financial investments to support a privileged lifestyle. 

To some who have observed Davis over these years, the question of why he would enter politics isn’t elusive.  Strand, the Colorado Springs council member and former JAG, said Davis’ candidacy is consistent with his instinct to challenge authority and to back the underdog.   Sonnett said he thinks Davis’ decision was another example of his “need to stand up for principle.”

And one principle remains worthy of on-going engagement, according to Davis’ own account in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece published in 2017:  “Injustices must not be forgotten.  I intend to do my part to make sure Americans remember: Torture was wrong back then, and it is wrong now.”

AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County.  Tom Fiedler is former executive editor of The Miami Herald where he shared a Pulitzer Prize for his political reporting.  He lives in Asheville.