Anthony Graves, the Texas man exonerated last fall after spending 18 years — 12 of them on Death Row – for a heinous crime he didn’t commit, held a Houston audience enthralled Friday as he described his remarkable journey toward freedom and his new mission to speak out for justice.
Graves appeared with Nicole Casarez, one of his lawyers and a journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas, at an event called “Fight for Freedom” in a packed auditorium at the university. The event was sponsored by the St. Martin de Porres Society, an organizaton of black UST alumni, as part of its celebration of Black History Month.
[Disclosure: I am a friend of Casarez and several of her former students who as part of the Innocence Project of Texas did much of the investigative work that ultimately led to the 2006 appellate decision overturning Graves' conviction on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. Click here for my coverage of a press conference at which Graves appeared the day after his release from a Burleson County jail.]
Graves, 45, dapper in a three-piece beige suit, sat quietly but proudly beaming as Casarez first took the podium to tell the multiracial audience about the extraordinary turns in Graves’ story.
“”We could look at Anthony’s case as a great tragedy,” Casarez said. “I could use Anthony’s case to talk about all the flaws in our criminal justice system. But this an opportunity for us to celebrate.”
Casarez said there was one overriding lesson that could be taken from Graves’ story: “Never underestimate the power of dedicated people working for good.” She said the work she and many students did for years demonstrated that “perseverance really does pay off.” She noted that Graves’ nearly two-decade saga involved 10 prosecutors, eight defense attorneys and numberous court appearances in such far-flung locales as New Orleans, Austin, Galveston and Caldwell, Texas.
“We were told constantly we were too late,” Casarez said, adding that many times over the years, people asked her “Why do you keep working?” For her and her students, the answer was simple. “We just wanted to know what happened. We wanted to know the truth.”
Casarez said that desire to know the truth was bulwarked by the fact that ever time she spoke to any of the defense attorneys (a “pretty cynical” bunch, she noted) who had previously represented Graves, each one said, “You know he’s innocent, don’t you?”
She said working toward Graves’ exoneration was a family effort. “And there were many families,” she said, including Graves’ own family, her own husband and children who allowed her make the sacrifices in her time with them, her colleagues at the university, and the student investigators, including a “core group” of six or seven who worked on the case from the beginning to the end, long after they had graduated. “None of us could simply walk away from an injustice,” she said.
Even after Graves’ original conviction was overturned in 2006, he was held in a county jail awaiting retrial by a succession of prosecutors. Casarez noted that he was set to go to trial this month, and she assured the audience “We would have won an acquittal.”
But in October, special prosecutor Kelly Siegler, long known as a tough, no-holds-barred prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, decided in the course of her own investigation that there was “no credible evidence” that could link Graves to the crime.
“Kelly Siegler put truth and justice first,” Casarez told the audience, adding that Siegler castigated Charles Sebesta, the original prosecutor in the case, for what she called egregious misconduct.
Casarez called Graves’ story “a triumph of good over evil.”
“It was a victory of love, and we have all enlarged our circles of love,” she said. “I am a Caucasian, Canadian, single child, and I now have a native Texan, African-American brother,” she said to huge applause.
As Graves rose to stand behind the podium, he was greeted with a long, standing ovation. He quietly took it in before beginning to speak in his quiet, friendly but sometimes firm voice.
“It was a long time, 18 years, that I waited for this. I fought an uphill battle, with people thinking that I was something I wasn’t,” he said.
But, he noted, he didn’t do it alone.
“You’ve already met my angel and my sister,” he said, jokingly nodding toward Casarez.
But he gave his greatest thanks to his mother, seated in the front row, for never wavering in her support, adding that “the bond between us strengthened” during his long ordeal.
Graves said that during his years in prison and Death Row, he was often asked how he kept up his will to fight and belief that he would someday be exonerated. “The truth is love — it conquers all,” he said.
On two occasions before his conviction was overturned, he said, he was marched to the warden’s office to be hold that his execution date was set. Both times, he simply walked out without saying a word, and waved to his fellow inmates as he was led back to Death Row.
“I had another plan. I was innocent. You were not going to kill me,” he said to tremendous applause. Reaching his cell, he said, he would simply begin writing another letter for support. It was one such letter that finally reached Casarez and led to her decision to investigate his case.
While he often had moments of doubt, nights when he laid in his cell crying for his ordeal to end, Graves said he grew to know himself better.
“You know that strength is in you to get past everything that’s thrown at you,” he said.
As much as he believed that he would someday be freed, he also knew that he would then have a new mission: to spread a message to American society of a death penalty system he said was fundamentally flawed.
“These guys are human beings. These are your sons, your brothers, your neighbors. This is life,” he said.
Like any endeavor created and run by human being, the criminal justice system — and the death penalty — is subject to human error and even malfeasance, Graves said.
“The reality is, Texas is executing innocent people,” Graves said forcefully. “I was there. They tried to kill me twice.”
Graves described a night in 2006 when he was in his cell, listening to a game of his beloved Houston Astros on the radio. He received a note from another inmate, who wrote that he’d heard on the news that Graves’ conviction had been overturned. The other inmate congratulated him, saying “I’ll see you on the other side.”
When he got the news, Graves said, he wanted to scream for joy. But he celebrated quietly, out of respect for his fellow inmates. (The inmate who’d told him the news was later executed.)
Later, he recounted Oct. 27, 2010, when he was again inside his cell in the Burleson County jail, awaiting retrial. A guard opened the door and told him to follow him, without explanation. He expected to be led down a left-turn in the hallway, but instead the guard continued straight. That made him “very nervous,” he said.
The guard led him to an interrogation room and opened the door. Among the people inside, the first face he recognized was that of Casarez.
“She said, ‘Anthony, do you remember when you told me God was good? Well, God is good, Anthony. They’ve dropped the charges.””
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. Casarez handed him some civilian clothes and said, “Put your clothes on. Let’s go.”
Graves told the audience members that he had one simple message: “Never give up. It’s your choice. I chose to fight.” He said he plans to continue fighting on behalf of the wrongfully accused, “the way Nicole Casarez and others did for me.”
A video of the “Fight for Freedom” event can be found here.
In October 2010, before Graves’ release, Texas Monthly senior editor Pamela Colloff wrote the definitive examination of the case in the article “Innocence Lost.” The magazine also produced a short companion documentary, “Reasonable Doubt.” Colloff later wrote a follow-up aricle, “Innocence Found.”
In January 2011, Sebesta, the former prosecutor in the Graves case, created a website, Setting the Record Straight, providing his views on the case.
In April 2011, the CBS program “48 Hours Mystery” outlined the case in the episode “Grave Injustice.”
In June 2011, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs presented Graves a check for $1.45 million, the first installment of the funds owed to him by the state for his wrongful imprisonment. That followed a months-long legal and legislative effort after Graves’ claim was initally denied.
In December 2011, Houston defense attorney (and former Harris County prosecutor) Murray Newman interviewed Graves and Casarez on the community televison program “Reasonable Doubt.” A link to the hour-long interview can be found on Newman’s blog, “Life at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center,” here.
In Feburary 2012, Graves, Casarez, Siegler and Colloff participated in a panel discussion hosted by Texas Monthly magazine called “Future Forum: Guilt, Innocence and the Death Penalty.”
In August 2012, Graves was named the new host of The Prison Show, a long-running program on Houston community radio station KPFT which discusses issues related to the prison system and justice.
Copyright © 2011 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.