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One of the most horrific acts that a human being can carry out against their fellow human beings is murder. It’s perplexing enough to imagine the motivation behind an adult killing another adult but what about when it is a child or teenager committing this violent deed? In this article, we shall look at the murder of Melanie Davis and the attempted murder of Josh Davis. Was the killer impaired by a severe mental illness or was he just pure evil?
The 10th of August, 2012, started just like any other day but by the following morning, Melanie Davis would be dead and her 15-year-old son, Zachary, would be in police custody.
Melanie was as Australian citizen who moved to Hendersonville, Tennessee, to marry Chris. The couple went on to have two sons – first born was Josh and second born was Zachary. They were your average all-American family that lived in a middle class neighbourhood. Melanie worked as a paralegal and in her free time, she partook in triathlons.
However, in 2007, tragedy struck when Chris died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The death came as a blow to the whole family but it particularly had an impact on 10-year-old Zachary who fell into a deep depression. Within just a few months, Zachary would be sent for psychiatric treatment with Dr. Bradley Freeman at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Zachary told his psychiatrist that he would very frequently hear disembodied voices. It was evident that he was suffering from some form of mental disease from the very first meeting. Nevertheless, Zachary’s case was terminated when Melanie stopped bringing her son to his appointments with Dr. Freeman.
Throughout his teenage years, Zachary was known to be an outcast by his peers at Station Camp High School. He possessed some bizarre quirks and characteristics. One student recalled how Zachary often refused to speak in his regular voice and almost always responded in a whisper when being spoken to. This same student added that Zachary would wear the same hoodie day in and day out.1
At approximately 9PM on the 10th of August, 2012, 46-year-old Melanie went to bed just like usual. Earlier on in the evening, Melanie, 16-year-old Josh, and 15-year-old Zachary had attended a showing of the comedy film “The Campaign” at the local cinema before returning home together. As Melanie drifted off to sleep, she was completely unaware that her youngest son, Zachary, was planning something extremely sinister.
When Melanie and Josh were both asleep, Zachary crept into his mother’s bedroom. He was armed with a sledgehammer that he had retrieved from the basement. With that sledgehammer, Zachary bludgeoned Melanie in the head over and over again. The medical examiner would later conclude that Melanie suffered at least eight blows to the head.
The blood-spattered teenager then left the bedroom, locking the door behind him, and walked to the game’s room. In here, he poured gasoline and whiskey over the walls and floors and set it alight before fleeing off into the night. Thankfully, Zachary closed the game’s room door thus the fire did not spread due to lack of oxygen. Moments later, the fire alarm quickly started beeping and Josh awoke from his slumber. Realising that his mother’s bedroom door was locked, he broke the door down and was met by an unimaginable scene.
Josh ran to a neighbour’s home for help.
Approximately five hours later, a Sumner County Sheriff’s Office deputy found Zachary, walking along a two-lane road roughly five miles from his home off Long Hollow Pike. Zachary was taken in for questioning without incident and readily confessed that he had murdered his mother as she slept. Sheriff Sonny Weatherford said that when he confessed, he had a malevolent smirk on his face.
It was April of 2015 and after narrowing the jury down to seven men and five women, Zachary’s trial was ready to commence. Zachary was being tried as an adult and was pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. Defence lawyer, Randy Lucas, and prosecution, Sumner County Attorney General Ray Whitley, laid out the basis of their arguments in opening statements. “There was harmony in the house,” said Whitley. “Zach Davis had planned and intended to kill his mother and brother, and tonight was the night,” announced Whitley to the crowded court room. 2
This was cold-blooded murder, the prosecution declared but the defence offered a different motivation.
Zachary’s defence lawyer announced in his opening statement that jury would see a taped confession of Zachary , declaring that even though he admitted to the murder, doesn’t mean that he is guilty. Zachary was suffering from an untreated mental illness at the time of the murders, his defence lawyer argued, and for this reason, he shouldn’t be held responsible for his actions.
Dr. Bradley Freeman, who had earlier examined Zachary, took to the stand and testified that Zachary had told him that when he killed his mother, he did so at the request of his father. However, as mentioned earlier, Zachary’s father passed away in 2007. Zachary had earlier revealed to Dr. Freeman that he had frequently been hearing his father’s voice and Zachary would relay this information to the court room.
“We’ve heard talk about you hearing voices when no one is there. Do you hear voices, Zach?” an attorney asked.
“Yes,” the teen replied quietly.
“Can you tell the judge, do you recognise that voice?”
“It’s the voice of my father,” Davis said.
“And does he continue to talk with you even after you’ve been in the jail?”
He believed that his father had been telling him that he needed to kill his mother. Assistant District Attorney Tara Wylie refuted these claims when she pointed out that Zachary had not mentioned hearing his father’s voice until after his first hearing at juvenile court. Dr. Freeman announced to the jury that he had diagnosed Zachary with schizophrenia, adding that due to this disorder, he could not form the necessary thought process which was needed in order to commit first degree murder. “His judgement was driven by his psychosis. That’s what I believe prevents him from premeditating this crime,” Dr. Freeman said.
Another psychologist who had interviewed Zachary 30 times since his arrest agreed with this diagnosis. “I’ve never encountered someone so severely detached from his emotions” she told the jury, adding that she diagnosed him with schizophrenia as well as depression. 4
Throughout the trial, Zachary frequently manically laughed at inappropriate times. On the third day of the trial, Zachary took to the stand to testify on his own behalf and said something that nobody – including his attorney – expected to hear: “I didn’t do it,” he exclaimed. 5 “I took the fall for my brother. I didn’t do it. He killed her with a sledgehammer,” Zachary told the stunned courtroom. When Zachary’s defence lawyer, Randy Lucas, reminded him that there was a hand-written confession as well as a taped confession, Zachary replied: “I didn’t kill her…” In addition to the confessions, Melanie’s blood was spattered over his trousers.
The prosecution had argued that regardless of mental illness, Zachary had meticulously planned his attack. He had written his plans in his diary in the days leading up to the murder. He had poured gasoline and whiskey into the bedroom before setting it alight. Additionally, Zachary had fled the home with a packed bag that he had prepared earlier and threw his cell phone into a ditch so that police could not trace it. This is a clear indication of premeditation. Presiding over the trial was Sumner County Judge Dee David Gay, who concluded that while Zachary probably did suffer from mental illnesses, he knew wrong from right. “The thing that bothers me is that you have shown no regrets, no remorse, in murdering your own mother at age 15,” he bellowed to the stone-faced Zachary.
The trial took another unexpected twist when Zachary’s diary was presented to the jury. This diary had been found in Zachacy’s backpack when he was apprehended following the murder. On an entry that was dated the 10th of August, 2012 – the same day Zachary killed his mother – he claimed that his brother had raped him. “I was raped by him that day, and I’ve been planning to kill him ever since.” Following the murder, he wrote another journal entry which read: “I killed Melanie and left Josh alone to suffer… I didn’t feel anything… I didn’t feel remorse… My only true regret was that I didn’t give her a faster death. I didn’t want her to suffer.”
However, these claims were meticulously investigated and the Department of Children’s Services found no evidence to back these claims up. Furthermore, when Josh was questioned about these claims, he told investigators that he loved his brother and that these claims were “ridiculous.” Was this just an instance of a damaged mind becoming confused or was Zachary trying to place the blame on somebody else?
One of the most harrowing moments of the trial was when Zachary’s taped confession was played. In this confession, he explained his reasoning behind using a sledgehammer to kill his mother: “I was worried that I’d miss,” adding that the sledgehammer gave him the “highest chance of killing her.” When asked by the detective if he could go back in time, would he still carry out the attack to which he replies: “I would probably kill Josh with a sledgehammer too.”
Family members and family friends disclosed that they never believed anything to be amiss with Zachary. While yes, he was different, nothing could have indicated that he was capable of such violence. He had a good relationship with his mother and brother and Melanie Garner, a TBI expert in computer forensics corroborated this. While investigating Zachary’s phone, she found text messages between the family. In fact, there were pleasantries exchanged just the day before Zachary killed Melanie.
After a four day trial, the jury sided with the prosecution. Zachary was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment plus another 20 years for the attempted murder of his brother. “I think that Zach Davis is a little bit smarter and a little bit wilier than we give him credit for,” announced Sumner Country District Attorney Ray Whitely following the sentencing phase.
While Zachary serves his life sentence, the outside opinion on the true motivation behind the senseless murder still remains very much divided.
- The News-Examiner – 15 April, 2015
- MSMV News – 15 January, 2014
- MSMV News – 15 January, 2014
- The Tennessean – 15 April, 2015