John E. Davis is a decorated Vietnam veteran who hails from rural Nebraska. An introverted man who prefers the country to the city and a quiet evening at home reading newspapers, he is still shocked at how his life turned out: he was sentenced to life in prison without parole under federal drug laws. He had no prior criminal record.

After returning from Vietnam, Davis suffered emotionally and psychologically like many soldiers. He began using meth to cope. He fell in with the wrong crowd. Davis was at a low point, but nothing could prepare him for dealing with the justice system. Thinking it the right thing to do, he utilized his constitutional right to go to trial – as a first time offender, he didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t until the quantity of drugs he was charged as possessing was increased based primarily on co-conspirator testimony did he even know he could receive a life sentence.

“I might as well be sentenced to death,” he thought when he heard the verdict. Sadly, dealing with death and grief was the most difficult adjustment to life in prison. Davis’s mother and father passed after his conviction. His mother called almost a day before she died, begging to see him before she passed. With only a few friends in Nebraska to visit him, Davis focused on work. He manages payroll for evening sanitation workers; in addition, skilled in basic law and legal research, he assisted in the law library and volunteered for suicide watch for a decade.

After the loss of his parents and settling into his new life, Davis recently learned that he has a daughter, Laurie as well as four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. In just a short amount of time, they’ve grown as a family and share a strong bond. Laurie and her family live over 900 miles away from the prison but still visit every month. Brief visits are never enough. It breaks Davis’s heart that he can only speak to his daughter for fifteen minutes over the phone or never hold her hand when she visits in person.

Despite the harshness of his sentence, Laurie holds on to unwavering faith that she will hug her dad outside of prison walls as a free man one day. Laurie has made it her life mission to  rail against the cruel life sentence her father faces and works to free him and raise awareness for the need of criminal justice reform. “Several people have told me to just accept it and move on with my life,” she writes. “Those who know me best know that is not an option with me. I am an eternal optimist and I also don’t give up.”

The first thing Davis would do were he released tomorrow would be to head to Colorado to live with his daughter and her family. Except to pay respects at his parents’ graves, he has no desire to be in Nebraska, a site of so much pain and loss. He simply wants to move forward.

His father used to say, “Things can change at any time.” It’s advice Davis keeps close to heart as it has proven true in some of the most heartrending ways as well as the most surprisingly beautiful with his newfound family.

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