The teenager had a history of mental disturbance, but no one could have predicted a murder streak in him.
On Aug. 10, 2012, the trajectory of an everyday middle-class family in Tennessee irreparably changed. 15-year-old Zachary Davis in a flurry of madness murdered his mother with a sledgehammer and attempted to burn his house down while his older brother was still inside.
Even the courts debated as to whether the young man was deeply disturbed or simply pure evil.
The Death Of A Loved One
Zachary was a quiet boy who clearly had a history of mental illness. When his father, Chris, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2007, then nine-year-old Davis went into a tailspin.
According to Gail Cron, Zach’s paternal grandmother, the boy was taken to see a Dr. Bradley Freeman at Vanderbilt University Medical Center shortly after his father’s passing. The psychiatrist noted that the boy certainly did suffer from some kind of mental defect.
Zach claimed to hear voices and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depressive disorder. Although Zach was normally quiet, he was becoming even more withdrawn.
In one of his four sessions with Dr. Freeman, Zachary told claimed to hear the voice of his father.
Psychologists recognize that experiencing a deep depression like the one Zachary had descended into after the death of a loved one, particularly at such a young age, is normal.
While Zachary did go through the first two phases common in the bereavement process, including numbness and depression, he did not make it to the third: recovery. This is in part because perhaps his mother pulled him out of therapy shortly after he had begun.
Indeed, even his grandmother would remark at his trial that had Zachary received the proper medical attention he required, “this would not have happened.”
The family instead moved to Sumner County, Tenn. to move on with their lives — or so they thought.
Zachary Davis: The Teenage Killer
Melanie worked hard as a paralegal and trained hard as a triathlete. She did her best to get past Chris’s death and to keep her boys happy. Unbeknownst to her, her youngest son Zachary was beyond her grasp.
The 15-year-old was an outcast amongst his peers. He often spoke in a monotonous whisper and would wear the same hoodie every day. He had an app on his phone about serial killers and another that listed torture devices. His notebooks where writhe with such disturbing anecdotes as “you can’t spell slaughter without laughter.” He read the Stephen King novel Misery and played violent video games.
It was not evident that he was outwardly violent, however, until that night on Aug. 10, 2012.
Zachary, his mother, and 16-year-old brother Josh went to a movie together. When they returned, packed several items into a backpack and satchel, including clothing, notebooks, a toothbrush, gloves, a ski mask, and a claw hammer. On the outside, it could have seemed as though Zachary was going to run away from home, but on the inside, something far more sinister was at play.
Melanie went to bed at 9 P.M. When she was asleep, Zachary retrieved the sledgehammer from the basement and entered his mother’s room. He bludgeoned her to death and struck her nearly 20 times.
Then, drenched in her blood, Zachary closed her door, went to the family game room, and drenched that in whiskey and gasoline before setting it aflame. He shut the door and fled the house.
He had intended to kill his brother Josh in the fire but because he closed the door to the game room, the fire did not spread immediately and the older brother was consequently awoken by a fire alarm. When he went to retrieve his mother, he found her a bloodied mess.
Josh escaped the fire to a neighbor’s house. Zach was found by authorities nearly 10 miles from his home. He told authorities that “I didn’t feel anything when I killed her.”
Arrest And Trial
In a videotaped confession presented as evidence to the court, Zachary Davis chillingly explained how the disembodied voice of his father told him to kill his mother. When asked by a detective in his confession if he could go back in time, would he still carry out the attack, Zach said that “I would probably kill Josh with a sledgehammer too.”
Defense attorney Randy Lucas, asked during the trial, “Did he tell you to do anything specific to your mother?”
Zach said no and he showed no remorse when investigators presented him with pictures of his mother’s blood-soaked body. In fact, he never showed any remorse at all.
He said he chose a sledgehammer as the murder weapon because “I was worried that I’d miss,” and that this tool adding gave him the “highest chance of killing her.”
At the trial, the jury was also presented with Zachary’s interview with television personality, Dr. Phil McGraw.
McGraw asked, “Why did you kill her?” and Zach said that “She wasn’t taking care of my family.”
He laughed when he described how large and heavy the murder weapon was. He also laughed when he described the sound the sledgehammer made when connecting with his mother’s head, “It was a wet thumping sound.”
When asked why Zach hit his mother multiple times, the teen replied, “I wanted to make sure she was dead.”
At one point in his trial, Zachary tried to blame the murder on his brother. The claim surprised even his defense attorney, who admitted openly in court that Zachary Davis killed his mother. The defense was merely trying to get a more lenient sentence for Davis and trying to pin the crime on his brother didn’t help his case.
Judge Dee David Gay said, “You became evil, Mr. Davis; you went to the dark side. It’s that plain and simple.”
Compassion For Zachary Davis?
The justice system and the 12-member jury grappled with the notion that while Zachary had clearly premeditated his mother’s murder, it was also apparent that he was deeply unwell.
Dr. McGraw tried to show compassion towards the teenager, “When I look in your eyes, I don’t see evil, I see lost.”
Zach’s paternal grandmother appealed to his severe mental illness and the lack of help he received. “Every teacher, every guidance counselor should have to stand trial with Zach,” Cron said. “Zach is not a monster. He’s a child who made a horrible mistake.”
She believes Melanie failed to get Zach the help he needed and that Melanie paid for the mistake with her life.
Dr. Freeman, the psychiatrist who first diagnosed him, also testified in court that Zachary’s “judgment was driven by his psychosis,” and that because of his mental illness, could not have possibly premeditated the murders.
The jury and judge did not feel the same, however, and Zach was sentenced to life in prison after a jury deliberated just three hours to reach a guilty verdict.
A life sentence in Tennessee is a minimum of 60 years with the possibility of parole after 51 years. Zachary Davis will be in his mid-60s by the time he could get out of prison.
Whether the murder was cold-blooded or brought on by psychosis, it is regardless a tragic story of a family destroyed.
Take a look at the story of Jasmine Richardson, the teenage girl who butchered her family yet walks free, or read about serial killer Charlie Brandt, who, at age 13, killed his mother and was free to kill again as an adult 30 years later.