A Barmaid’s Lay Opinion: The Trial of Jerry Ray Davidson

On Tuesday night, Sept. 26, 1995, Virginia “Jenny” Jackson entered Bronco’s Bar at Dickson. She was 43, the divorced mother of a daughter, 20, and a son, 16. By 11:30 p.m. no cabs were available, and the only other remaining customer was Jerry Ray Davidson, 50. Jackson accepted his offer of a ride.

Three weeks later, on Thursday, Oct. 19, deer hunters saw a woman’s nude body barely buried in a shallow grave near the Dickson County line with Houston County. Law enforcement and forensic experts descended on the scene. The head was missing; the left hand was missing; the torso was cut open from sternum to navel. Yes, it was Jenny Jackson’s corpse.

That same day investigators arrested Davidson at a bar near Cuba Landing, where Interstate 40 crosses the Tennessee River. Asked where he drove Ms. Jackson that September evening, he said he left her at a Kroger parking lot. Not telling him that the body was found, the officers asked Davidson to theorize what happened. He suggested that Jackson might be found with head and hands missing. Then Davidson was told of the discovery and the officers asked him what he had done with the head. His reply: “I haven’t told you that I killed her yet.”

The trial began Aug. 4, 1997. A key witness was Darla Harvey, who tended bar at yet another watering hole, Lakeview Tavern in Cumberland City. On Oct. 12, a week before the corpse was discovered, Davidson became an afternoon customer around 2:30 p.m. He sat at the far end of the bar, ordered a Budweiser, and started staring at barmaid Harvey. An appellate opinion summarized her testimony:

She stated that she thought that Davidson’s staring wasn’t “right,” made her “kind of wary,” and led her to conclude that “something ain’t right” and “this ain’t working out too good.” Harvey further testified that, as Davidson continued staring, she got a “gut feeling” that she should go outside and look at his truck. After examining Davidson’s truck, she said to herself, “Good, I got me a nut.” … Harvey testified that, after re-entering the bar, she was “bothered” when Davidson continued to stare at her and then went to the restroom and looked out the back door. She testified that, as Davidson remained in the bar, he made her “nervous,” that she “felt real uneasy about the whole situation,” and that his staring “was making [her] very uncomfortable.” Harvey testified that it was “funny” and that “something wasn’t right” when Davidson left the bar at one point to get a cigarette since he had just opened a pack of cigarettes. Harvey said that, when she saw Davidson get something out of his truck, she placed her gun close at hand and released the safety. She continued to believe that “something wasn’t right” when Davidson returned because he did not speak to her when she addressed him and because he kept his hand in his pocket. Harvey stated that she had been ready to shoot Davidson if he had come any closer. She commented that she “just had a bad feeling, this guy wasn’t making me feel right.” Finally, Harvey testified that she felt so afraid at this point, that she urged some customers to ask Davidson to leave and that Davidson then left.

Were her reactions to observations admissible lay opinions? Tennessee Rule of Evidence 701(a) states the law:

If a witness is not testifying as an expert, the witness’s testimony in the form of opinions or inferences is limited to those opinions or inferences which are (1) rationally based on the perception of the witness and (2) helpful to a clear understanding of the witness’s testimony or the determination of a fact in issue.

Yes, the barmaid’s statements were admissible.

The Supreme Court in a split opinion affirmed the opinion testimony and the death penalty. State v. Jerry Ray Davidson, 121 S.W.3d 600 (2003), cert. denied 541 U.S. 1049 (2004). Justice Holder wrote for the court, joined by Chief Justice Drowota and Justice Barker. Justices Anderson and Birch dissented with opinions.

The only part of the quoted testimony that didn’t pass muster, objection being sustained by the trial judge, was “Good, I got me a nut.” Frankly, I sort of like that analysis by Darla Harvey.

Davidson remains on death row. The Court of Criminal Appeals denied post-conviction relief, but on June 14, 2013, the Tennessee Supreme Court granted permission to appeal from that denial. We’ll see what happens.


Don Paine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP.