When Anthony Graves, struggling with an unfamiliar cell phone, called his mother in Brenham late Wednesday afternoon, he asked her what she was making for dinner. When she asked him why, he replied “Because I’m coming home.”
That was no small statement for Graves, who on Thursday relished his first full day of freedom since his arrest in August 1992 in connection with the brutal mass slaying of a family in nearby Somerville. Based almost entirely on the testimony of the original suspect, Robert Earl Carter, Graves was convicted two years later of capital murder and sentenced to death.
(On the eve of his own trial, Carter recanted his naming of Graves to then-Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta, and again declared Graves’s innocence shortly before his execution in 2000).
Graves, 45, spent 12 years on death row before the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction in 2006 and remanded his case to state district court. Since then, Graves had been sitting in a county jail cell awaiting a new trial that had been scheduled for February.
But on Wednesday, current district attorney Bill Parham and special prosecutor Kelly Siegler dismissed the capital murder charge, declaring that there was “no credible evidence” linking Graves to the crime. (During a Wednesday press conference, according to press accounts, they sharply condemned Sebesta for what they called prosecutorial misconduct. Sebesta has denied acting improperly.) Graves was released shortly afterward.
[In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that I am a friend of lawyer and University of St. Thomas professor Nicole Casarez and several of her former journalism students who as part of the Innocence Project of Texas did much of the investigative work that ultimately led to the appellate decision.]
On Thursday, after making a stop on the way from Brenham to enjoy some barbecued ribs, Graves spoke for the first time to a standing-room-only gaggle of reporters inside the Houston office of his lead attorney, Katherine Scardino. Wearing a charcoal suit, Graves entered the law office to the cheers of supporters.
Asked to describe languishing on death row as an innocent man, Graves said it was “Hell. Hell, whatever your definition of hell is. You don’t even have to elaborate.”
But despite enduring 18 years of that hell, Graves said he held no bitterness, looking only to move forward with his life and speak out for other innocent but condemned people enmeshed in what he called a “broken” Texas criminal justice system.
Graves, speaking softly and often smiling broadly, said that it was the support he received from his family and others, including Casarez and her students, that helped maintain his steadfast refusal to give in to despair.
“It’s called love, something all of us can’t get enough of,” he said.
“I never lost hope. If you ever lose hope, you’re just a dead man walking,” he added.
“It’s still not real to me,” Graves said of being free, admitting that he hadn’t been able to sleep the previous night at his mother’s home. “For 18 years, that was my life. I woke up to steel doors, a steel bunk with a plastic mattress. That’s been my own personal hell for 18 years.”
But Graves said he had no anger, not even toward Sebesta. “I’m not going to give them that energy,” he said. “God will deal with the rest.” He said he had no ill feelings toward Carter, who originally implicated him, saying that police and prosecutors had manipulated him.
Graves said that he hopes to work toward fixing what he said was a “flawed” system and give hope to others like himself. While not offering specific names, Graves said he was sure that there are other innocent people on death row.
“Whether or not you know it, this affects you too, because it could happen to any of us,” he said.
He declined to say whether he would file a civil lawsuit, saying only that he would “seek justice.”
Scardino, accompanied by fellow attorney James Phillips, Jr., was harshly critical of Sebesta, as well as later prosecutors who as recently as last year made a plea bargain offer to Graves of life imprisonment, which he refused.
“How can I lie on myself?” Graves said. “How can I go before a judge and just tell a lie that I did something I didn’t do? That’s a slow death.”
Asked for a sound bite that he hoped would most be remembered, Grave said, “Never give up. Stand by what you believe in. Try to make a change. In the end, it will help us all.”
The press conference concluded, Graves remained sitting on the plush couch, chatting warmly with Casarez and several of the former students who helped him gain his freedom.
Just weeks before Graves’ release, Texas Monthly presented a definitive examination of his case in the article “Innocence Lost” by senior editor Pamela Colloff. The magazine also produced a short companion documentary, “Reasonable Doubt,” and shot this video of the press conference. 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 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.”
Copyright © 2010 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.