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Trump commutes ‘mastermind’ of Syracuse cop killing, freeing him from prison

Police officials, prosecutors and lawmakers expressed dismay over the decision

Wallie Howard Jr.

Nate Howard holds a photograph of Wallie Howard Jr. taken after Wally became a police officer. Howard is Wallie’s uncle.

Dennis Nett/Dennis Nett |

By Chris Baker

Syracuse, N.Y. — The federal prosecutor who sent a drug kingpin to prison for orchestrating the murder of a Syracuse police officer expressed outrage Wednesday at President Trump’s surprise decision to release him from a life sentence.

“I’m kind of outraged that President Trump has granted him a commutation,” said retired Assistant U.S. Attorney John Duncan, a Republican who handled the trial personally.

Duncan wasn’t the only local official who blasted the outgoing president’s decision to release the mastermind of the slaying of Police Officer Wallie Howard, one of Central New York’s most notorious murders.

U.S. Rep John Katko, Syracuse police Chief Kenton Buckner, former police union president Jeff Piedmonte and Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick expressed similar dismay to | The Post-Standard.

All said the evidence proves Jaime Davidson was the mastermind in planning a drug robbery that led to Howard’s 1990 murder. A federal jury had found him guilty, and years of appeals had gone nowhere.

But Davidson received an 11th hour commutation from Trump overnight, apparently swaying the president that he was innocent any involvement in the murder. Davidson has remained unrepentant in prison, arguing for years that he was falsely convicted.

There’s no evidence that Davidson’s request for a commutation was vetted by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Pardons, which had rejected Davidson’s prior attempts to win freedom.

“How do you pick someone who murdered a police officer as the one who got out?” wondered Piedmonte, the former police union president. “It’s extremely disappointing and frustrating.”

Katko (R- Camillus), a colleague of Duncan at the time, said that Davidson was responsible for a heinous crime.

“Jaime Davidson was found guilty of orchestrating the brutal murder of Wallie Howard, a decorated Central New York police officer,” Katko said. “I completely disagree with the president’s decision to commute the sentence for this heinous crime. Davidson is a criminal who should have served out his life sentence.”

Syracuse Police Chief Kenton Buckner said the president’s decision was a “sock to the gut.”

“There’s a wide range of individuals that received a pardon… obviously for the Howard family, it’s disappointing. For me, for the SPD family it’s disappointing to have that individual out and to receive a pardon for that,” Buckner said. “That is something that is kind of a sock in the gut to our community.”

Buckner said he hopes Davidson takes advantage of the opportunity, but repeated his feeling that the commutation stung.

“We respect the president’s right to do so, I would hope that that gentleman would take this opportunity he’s given and continue to reform himself or to do some good things that he has promised he wants to do,” Buckner said. “But it certainly is a sock in the gut.”

Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, who personally prosecuted another man in Howard’s murder, said Davidson wasn’t worthy of mercy.

“Lots of worthy candidates for sentence commutation,” Fitzpatrick said. “Davidson is not one of them. It’s stunning. I hope somebody in the White House at least reached out to John Duncan or John Katko to get the full picture of his role in Wallie’s death.”

Duncan told | The Post-Standard that neither the White House nor the Justice Department consulted him before Trump signed the order releasing Davidson.

“This came quite as a surprise,” Duncan said, adding that he spoke early Wednesday with his co-prosecutor in the case, former U.S. Attorney Grant Jaquith. “We never would have looked upon that favorably.”

Davidson was convicted by a jury as part of a drug conspiracy that led to Howard’s death. The undercover officer was conducting a drug investigation when he was killed.

The actual shooter, Robert “Bam Bam” Lawrence, 16 years old at the time, was released from federal prison late last year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles weren’t eligible for life sentences.

With the release of Lawrence and Davidson, the two men most responsible for Howard’s murder are now free, Duncan said.

At the same time, three other accomplices — who didn’t pull the trigger or run the drug ring — are still stuck in prison for life, he noted.

“If that’s the kind of rationale the White House is using, it’s kind of hard to explain or justify,” Duncan said.

Piedmonte, of the police union, called both of their releases a “slap to the Howard family.”

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