(Florida Today) Donna Davis made two promises after the 2006 slaying of her oldest child, 21-year-old Laura Davis.
She vowed to her daughter, 26 weeks pregnant when she died at the hands of her boyfriend, that she would not rest until Florida law made it possible to prosecute someone for the death of a fetus during the commission of a crime.
Then, Davis made a pledge to Elijah "Mr. Willie" Brown, a 71-year-old blind man who had opened his home to Laura Davis and her boyfriend. Brown survived having his throat slit in the same rampage that left the young woman fatally beaten and strangled. Davis swore to Brown, whose family had little contact with him, that she would never let his body "sit in a morgue" if he were to die.
So when Brown passed away in 2010 at age 75, Davis saw that he was laid to rest next to her daughter and her unborn grandson at Oaklawn Cemetery in Titusville. Praying hands are etched on the marker of the man who, though he couldn't see the words, used to thumb through the Bible daily.
And on April 23, after eight years of pleading and petition-passing, the 55-year-old Titusville woman cried for joy as the Florida Senate passed the Florida Unborn Victims of Violence Act.
Penalties for killing or injuring a fetus under the bill, already passed by the House, are the same as if the crimes were committed against a person, except the death penalty could not be sought.
Previously, state law in such cases depended on the viability of the unborn fetus outside the womb. The bill awaits Gov. Rick Scott's signature.
Now Davis, despite the setbacks and the years she thought she couldn't keep going, can slow down a little, knowing that she kept two of the biggest promises she'd ever made.
Davis thinks her daughter would be proud but shocked by her commitment to seeing the law changed.
"I believe she'd be surprised how long a fight I fought," said Davis, who was left to raise Davis' son, 15 months old when his mother was killed.
"Her baby … his whole life was stolen from him, and he died slowly. If it can happen to me, it can happen to someone else's child. You have to speak out. You can't keep silent."
Left for dead
Laura Ann Davis, a high-school dropout working to get her diploma and "trying to turn her life around," her mother said, died Jan. 23, 2006. She and her boyfriend, John Moore, then 28, were living in the North Brevard home of Elijah Brown in return for taking care of him and his house. Titusville police said Moore and Davis had argued about his drug use and failure to bring money into the household.
Police said Moore first killed Davis; then left, bought drugs and came back. He attacked a sleeping Brown, slitting his throat with a knife and leaving him for dead. Brown, unaware that Davis had been killed, wrapped a towel around his neck and stumbled toward Donna Davis' house, a few blocks away, to warn Laura and her mother.
"I just fell in love with her," Brown told FLORIDA TODAY in 2006, speaking about Laura Davis. "She was a very nice person … she was like a daughter to me."
Within nine days of her daughter's death, Donna Davis met with then-Rep. Ralph Poppell, a Vero Beach Republican whose district included part of Brevard. From there, it was anyone who would listen.
She called Brevard lawmakers again and again. Then-Florida Sen. Bill Posey and Rep. Thad Altman, now a Florida state senator.
She worked to get more senators on board. She collected more than 150,000 signatures supporting such legislation. She became an advocate for victims of domestic violence.
But until this year,every version of proposed legislation failed. All of Brevard's Republican legislators, in both the House and Senate, voted yes repeatedly, including on the latest bill.
This time, lawmakers, responding to the case of a Tampa-area woman tricked by her boyfriend into taking an abortion pill, passed HB 59, sponsored by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. Those who perform abortions are exempt from facing prosecution.
Scott "looks forward to signing this legislation," said John Tupps, deputy press secretary, by email.
40 years in prison
In 2007, John Moore took a plea deal and was sentenced to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder and robbery. After his release from prison, he will be on probation for the rest of his life. Prosecutors could not charge him in the death of his unborn son because of Florida law at the time.
U.S. Rep. Posey, R-Rockledge, served in the Florida Senate in 2006. He recalls proposed legislation getting "wrapped around the question of what was considered a viable fetus/child/life."
"That turned it into a fight between pro-life and pro-choice advocates — rather than about justice for victims of murderers," Posey said.
"I am glad to hear reason has finally prevailed and applaud the legislature for seeing the light and Mrs. Davis for her persistence in the interest of justice for all."
Opponents of the bill express concern over how it will be carried out, and that the separate offense for which a person might be charged wouldn't require proof of criminal intent or awareness that the victim was pregnant.
Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Aventura, said a woman who is pregnant for one month could lose her baby during a car accident and the driver would be charged with murder.
"That is wrong, it really is wrong," Margolis said.
Sometimes, Davis admitted, she wanted to give up when proposed legislation hit walls. She was physically tired, too: She is on disability because of multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia.
"I had people writing things on petitions like, 'She deserved what she got,' or 'She shouldn't have been with a black man,' or 'She shouldn't be having a baby out of wedlock.' And some of the pro-choice people said I was trying to steal women's rights and that because of me we were going back to the dark ages," Davis said.
"But like I told every one of these people, this was not an abortion issue. This was the right of a mother to live and have her child. Where are their rights? We had a baby shower planned. She wanted her baby. We wanted her baby. And her rights were taken. I could never have an abortion but that's not my fight, and not my right to stop somebody else."
Son is growing up
Laura Davis' son, Lamariante, is now 9. He is active in soccer and basketball and recently brought home grades that included an A in science.
Near the graves of his mother and "Mr. Willie," under a towering live oak tree, the boy stood close to his grandmother. Big Bird from "Sesame Street" is etched on his mom's headstone. That was her nickname: At 6-foot-1, she was dubbed that by other kids when she wore a fluffy yellow jacket.
Lamariante is asking more questions about his mother these days. Davis told him that a man his mother loved hurt her, and that he should never put his hands on a woman, and a woman shouldn't put her hands on him.
She tells Lamariante she loves him a lot, she said. The last words she said to her daughter were "Would you take this garbage out with you?" That final, impersonal exchange haunts her.
"I know she knew it," Davis said. "But I couldn't remember, when was the last time I actually told her I loved her? There were times I wanted to walk away and I'd come close to it. But every time I wanted to, I thought about that promise I made her."
Davis' friend of 20 years, Naomi A. Priest of Titusville, comforted Davis in those moments.
"I told her one day, when she was, like, 'Why? Why me?' that God knew she would be the one strong person who would follow this from the beginning all the way to the end, and she would not stop," Priest said.
"Not one day, until she was able to save that one life … That's what she promised her daughter and she kept that mother's promise."