Dwayne Davis often wonders what would have happened if he hadn’t fled the country just as his February 2019 trial began. Could he have convinced Vance County jurors that the heroin police found in his grandmother’s house wasn’t his, and that his confession that it was had been coerced?
Other what-ifs haunt the 40-year-old’s thoughts: What if he hadn’t entrusted his fortunes to a celebrity lawyer whose brash style irritated the judge? And what if he hadn’t blown up a plea deal that might have secured his release in as little as two years—a promising, if unusual, offer that would have required him to buy the Henderson police a luxury car?
Instead, he faces more than two decades in prison.
“Sometimes I ask myself, should I have never said anything?” Davis told The Assembly in a phone call from the Roanoke River Correctional Institution.
On September 5, Davis asked the North Carolina Court of Appeals to grant him a new trial, arguing that his confession should have been suppressed and his attorneys were ineffective. He asserts his innocence, though his claims are impossible to prove. They rest on little more than his word and an affidavit from his former girlfriend, and they require discounting the testimony of a police lieutenant and a woman Davis admits he punched.
Even so, his case is full of bizarre details that raise troubling questions, not least of which is: Were prosecutors really willing to let Davis buy his way out of prison?
“If that’s the case, how many people have they done this to?” Davis said. “How many people can be in the same predicament who can buy their way out versus somebody who can’t? So the question is, is that how it goes?”
‘My Face Swelled Up Like a Pumpkin’
Growing up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Davis got into trouble early. He dropped out in eighth grade and spent two years in juvenile detention for stealing cars. In 2001, when he was 18, he was convicted of armed robbery. He spent the next five years in prison, where he converted to Islam, got his high school diploma, and learned carpentry.
Davis also began boxing, and later moved to Las Vegas to train at Floyd Merriweather’s gym. His record as a professional was 1-3, which he blames on poor management. His last fight, a loss, was in Mexico City in 2016. A photo from that fight shows him in black trunks with red text that reads “DA PROBLEM.”
Davis says that in September 2013, he and his then-girlfriend, Whitney Kornegay, drove to North Carolina from New Jersey. His cousin Corey Brown and Trikiya Whiteside, who was visiting from Tennessee, were already at his grandmother’s house in Henderson, about 45 minutes north of Raleigh.
Court filings suggest that Whiteside and Brown were dating, but Whiteside told The Assembly that she didn’t really know him and was only at the house because Kornegay had promised her a job at her aunt’s company. “I was just trying to get myself on my feet so that I could take care of my kids,” Whiteside said. “That was the worst decision of my life.”
At Davis’ trial, Whiteside testified that Davis brought a duffel bag full of drugs into the house. She also said she saw Davis “putting his hands on” Kornegay. “I immediately knew at that time that it was going to be a situation that I didn’t want to be involved in,” she said.
But she said Davis wouldn’t let her leave. “He was basically like, ‘You’re not going anywhere. Where do you think you’re going?’” she testified. And then, she said, he punched her—hard. “He hit me like I was a grown-ass man.”
Whiteside told The Assembly that Davis punched her at least 10 times. “My face was already starting to be unrecognizable at that point,” she said. “I had an orbital fracture, concussions—my face swelled up like a pumpkin.”
Davis claims he got into an argument with Whiteside after discovering drug paraphernalia in the kitchen. He admits he hit her, but says it was only once.
“I caught myself after I hit her because I’m like, ‘I’m tripping. I don’t want to hit no female,’” he told The Assembly.
‘50 Grams Heroin and 2 Gunz’
Davis and Brown left for a neighbor’s house, and Whiteside called 911 to report the assault. The police arrived and found about 50 grams of heroin and two handguns, according to court records. Following an anonymous tip, they went to the neighbor’s house, where they found Davis walking out the front door and Brown hiding in a closet.
The police arrested them, but didn’t drive directly to the police station. Instead, they drove them back to Davis’ grandmother’s house. Davis said he learned that his grandmother had returned home from babysitting, found police raiding her house and questioning her about drugs, and went into medical distress. He saw her on a gurney, receiving oxygen.
Davis says the cops told him his grandmother could face charges, too. So he took “full responsibility for what was found in the house,” according to his signed statement. Lt. Jonathan Collier told him to be more specific. “The paraphernalia the 50 grams heroin and 2 gunz where mine [sic],” Davis amended the statement to read.
Davis now says he only repeated details that Collier told him to write. But prosecutors have countered that Collier didn’t know the drugs’ weight at the time of the interview. Ultimately, there’s no way to prove what happened in the interview room: Collier testified during a 2022 appeal hearing that although the police station’s interview rooms had video cameras, he didn’t record Davis’ interrogation. He didn’t explain why.
Davis was charged with heroin trafficking and possession of two handguns by a felon. The police let everyone else go—even Brown, who had recently been released from prison and whom Collier testified in 2019 was “absolutely” involved in drugs. Collier said that Brown had also signed a confession—though none has ever surfaced in court records—but he let him leave after Davis claimed responsibility. Collier insisted, however, that he never promised to free Davis’ family if he confessed.
Curiously, Collier also testified that Davis disclosed where he bought the heroin, but he didn’t record that information.
In 2014, Kornegay said in an affidavit that Brown told her that Whiteside brought the drugs with her from Tennessee. Davis’ 2021 motion seeking a new trial echoes this allegation, and adds that in September 2014, Brown signed an affidavit also blaming Whiteside—but the motion says Davis’ lawyer “did nothing with this information” and later refused to disclose the affidavit to his appellate lawyers.
According to the motion Brown “fled to New Jersey after Davis’ arrest, where not long after, he sustained a gunshot to the head, which caused him to suffer severe and permanent memory problems.” Davis said Brown died last year of a drug overdose.
In 2020, Kornegay said in a second affidavit that Whiteside later “contacted me, stating she would ‘drop the charges’ against Mr. Davis and not appear to testify in court if Mr. Davis paid her a sum of at least $1,500.” Kornegay, who declined to comment for this article, also said in the affidavit that she reached out to Davis’ attorney but never heard back. She wasn’t called to testify at his 2019 trial.
Whiteside told The Assembly she didn’t know Davis had blamed her for the drugs until his trial: “I was totally blindsided by it.” She said that after Davis’ arrest, Kornegay repeatedly asked her to say the drugs didn’t belong to him—and once asked how much her silence would cost.
“I gave her, like, an astronomical number of over a million bucks,” Whiteside said. “Because no, you can’t really put a price on what you’ve cost me.”
‘Come Up With More Money’
Davis’ first lawyer, David Waters, has admitted that he hatched the idea of having his client buy the Henderson police a luxury car in exchange for less time behind bars.
In 2016, a judge rejected Waters’ argument that police had illegally searched Davis’ grandmother’s house, so the guns and drugs should be suppressed as evidence. (The cops said Davis’ uncle allowed them to enter, but the uncle said the police followed him inside without consent.) After that, Waters testified in a 2019 hearing about the plea bargain, “I became more concerned about trying to resolve this by some plea in favor of Mr. Davis that would not involve him being incarcerated for a good part of his life.”
A conviction for trafficking more than 28 grams of heroin carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 225 months in prison and a $500,000 fine. Davis appears to have previously rejected a plea bargain that would have sent him to prison for 90 months and carried a $100,000 fine; in a 2021 motion, however, he said Waters misled him into signing the plea rejection.
The police had seen Davis arrive at the suppression hearing in a “$100,000 Jaguar coup,” Waters later testified, and told prosecutors they wanted it for undercover operations. (The car was actually a Bentley, according to court records.) Assistant District Attorney Steven Gheen told Waters he planned to pursue civil forfeiture—seizing property believed to be involved in criminal activity—to obtain the car, in addition to fines and prison time.
But the Bentley likely wasn’t eligible because it belonged to Davis’ wife, Tiffany, who ran a Maryland accounting firm. More importantly, nothing connected the car to the alleged crime, which North Carolina courts require.
North Carolina has some of the nation’s strictest rules about asset forfeiture. Vehicles can only be forfeited after a conviction. And while police can use forfeited vehicles, any proceeds derived from selling them go to the school district. Davis’ current lawyers argue that the police wanted to “end-run” the restrictions by “converting money (which they can’t keep) into a vehicle (which they can),” according to the appeal filed in September.
Undaunted, Waters pitched an alternative: What if Davis bought a used, low-mileage Mercedes at a local dealership that could be forfeited in exchange for a reduced sentence?
Waters, who had previously served as the area’s district attorney for 30 years—and whose son was (and still is) the DA, though the office insisted he wasn’t involved in Davis’ case—knew his client’s access to cash was a huge bargaining chip. Heroin-trafficking convictions come with mandatory six-figure fines, but they’re almost never paid. In this scenario, his client would not only pay a hefty fine—which, by law, goes to the school system—but also buy the police department a new car.
According to court filings, Gheen was initially uncertain if this arrangement was legal. But he eventually determined that nothing prohibited him from doing it. So he, the police chief, and several officers went to the dealership to test-drive the Mercedes.
Waters asked Davis to wire him $100,000 and told him that “we have a deal now with $75,000,” including the car, according to court transcripts. “They will settle on two years. … But if you come up with more money, I can do more shopping to try to get the time reduced even more.”
He took Davis to see the Mercedes, which Waters told him he needed to buy and keep in his name until they finalized the deal. But Davis grew concerned that he was being extorted. His bail bonds agent suggested he tell City Councilwoman Melissa Elliott about his suspicions. Davis did. Elliott spoke to the police chief, who called the district attorney, who relayed that conversation to Gheen.
Gheen testified that he was told Davis tried to bribe Elliott to convince the DA’s office to agree to a no-prison deal, which Elliott vehemently denied. The police chief later testified that, though he was part of the group that test-drove the Mercedes, it “wasn’t the type of car I think we could do any surveillance” with. And after his conversation with Elliott, he told Waters, “No way, shape, or form would we accept any such vehicle.”
The deal was off. Waters returned Davis’ money and quit his case. Davis never got another plea offer.
‘Blood on My Knife’
After the deal collapsed, it took more than two years for Davis to go to trial. According to court records, Davis’ new attorney, Patrick Megaro, withdrew in October 2018 while under a State Bar investigation for defrauding clients with intellectual disabilities. (The State Bar suspended Megaro’s law license in 2021.)
While Megaro did not “do anything to prepare for trial,” according to the appeal Davis filed last month, he did ask the State Bureau of Investigation to probe whether Waters had attempted to extort Davis. The SBI determined he hadn’t.
Davis says his next attorney, Isaac Wright Jr., fixated on the plea deal ahead of Davis’ February 2019 trial.
Davis asked Wright to take his case because he believed they shared similar stories, he says. In 1991, Wright was convicted as a drug kingpin in New Jersey and sentenced to life in prison, though he was later exonerated. A judge ruled that prosecutors had concealed evidence and coerced witness statements. Wright passed the New Jersey bar in 2017, and his life became the basis of the 2020 television series For Life.
On Instagram, Wright has boasted that he will “never get into a fight I can’t win.” He posted in October 2022 that “with my intuition, judgement, and ingenuity … With Mud on My Boots and Blood on My Knife … Very few can stand against me. And none have the faintest clue what their up against until it’s too late [sic].”
That doesn’t seem to be what happened when Davis went back to court in February 2019. Based on the transcripts, Boz Zellinger, the assistant attorney general who took up the prosecution after Gheen retired, ran circles around Wright (who did not respond to requests for an interview). Wright failed to locate Brown and Kornegay, both crucial witnesses. He also appeared unfamiliar with the rules of North Carolina courtrooms, was hostile toward witnesses, and repeatedly antagonized the judge.
Davis says that before the trial began, Wright assured him that they’d get a continuance. They did not, and Davis says he panicked when Wright failed to convince the judge that the failed plea bargain violated his due process rights.
“Everything was going bad,” Davis said. “I’m like, ‘This is going too fast for me. I didn’t plan none of this. I’m out.’”
The day the trial began, Davis never showed. He flew to Morocco, an Islamic country where he says he felt more comfortable as a Muslim. (Morocco also does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.) The trial proceeded in his absence. Wright called no witnesses, and the jury convicted Davis in less than an hour.
“Sometimes I ask myself, would it have made a difference?” Davis said. “But I honestly think that everything was already gonna go the way that it was gonna go.”
Davis was arrested when he returned to the United States in June 2019. Wright did not return to North Carolina for Davis’ sentencing. Forced to use a local attorney who was only tangentially involved in his defense, Davis refused to leave his cell. Neither he nor his lawyer was in the courtroom when he was sentenced to 21 to 27 years in prison.
‘Unusual and Weird’
From the state’s perspective, the aborted plea bargain was “unusual” and “weird,” but irrelevant. Davis is “not entitled to a plea offer,” Zellinger told the court in a pretrial hearing. “He hasn’t gone to jail because he didn’t buy a car.” (Citing Davis’ appeal, the N.C. Department of Justice declined to comment.)
“They say [the car] had nothing to do with it,” Davis said. “I say it had everything to do with it.”
His new lawyers argue in this appeal that by orchestrating an “illegal” deal that imploded when discovered, Waters poisoned the well. “With a competent attorney,” they wrote, Davis “would have received (and accepted) the routine trafficking plea in Vance County at that time, which carried a 90-to-120-month sentence.”
The state’s initial response suggested that the Court of Appeals could dismiss Davis’ appeal on a technicality, but did not address its substantive claims. It’s unclear when the Court of Appeals will decide whether to hear Davis’ case. If the court says no, he’ll remain locked up until at least September 2, 2040.
Whiteside says that’s where Davis belongs.
The assault “destroyed me mentally,” she said. “I went through an entire breakdown right after that.” She said she still suffers from anxiety and depression.
Whiteside also said Davis called her a few months ago from a cell phone he’d obtained in prison and offered what she described as a “backhanded” apology for hitting her. Then he told her the drugs belonged to his now-deceased cousin, not him, and asked for her help.
“He’s definitely a liar,” Whiteside said. “I’m not gonna lie on a dead man for you. I’m not gonna sacrifice my integrity for you—the person who ruined my life. Absolutely not.”
Jeffrey Billman reports on politics and the law for The Assembly. He is the former editor-in-chief of INDY Week in Durham. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.