Please find the final version of this post on the Innocence Blog, published November 19, 2010.
Anthony Graves was twenty six when he was arrested for the Somerville murder of Bobbie Davis, her daughter and four grandchildren. It was a gruesome murder in what could typically be described as a small, sleepy Texas town (population 1,704) settled between Houston and Austin.
The oldest child of his remarkably large family and a young father himself, Anthony would be found guilty of capital murder two years after his arrest and subsequently sent to death row for a crime that prosecutors as of October 27 admit he did not commit. At the age of forty five and after serving eighteen years in prison, Anthony is poised to rebuild the life that he never had a chance to finish building .
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I first learned of Anthony and his struggle during my freshman year of college while working on the student newspaper. A small group of staff members was taking an advanced class titled Investigative Journalism: The Innocence Project. Under the inspiring guidance of Nicole Casarez, the students were working as researchers and investigators with the Texas Innocence Network at the University of Houston Law Center (and later the Innocence Project of Texas based in Lubbock). Professor Casarez, an attorney herself, taught us the ins and outs what causes wrongful convictions and even joined Anthony’s legal team at his request.
As journalism students, we obviously weren’t very well versed in criminal law or the legal system for that matter. Professor Casarez expertly taught us theâ€”hypothetically fatalâ€”flaws of the criminal justice system. We read â€œActual Innocenceâ€ from cover to cover while learning just how important it was to be thorough and exhaustive in our research into cases that were often prosecuted without ever being thoroughly scrutinized by the prosecution nor the defense. Collectively, we went through a number of cases, but the one that shook us all to our cores was Anthony’s.
I officially worked on Anthony’s case for three years, from 2003 till my graduation in 2006. There were a number of students who worked on the Graves team, spanning a number of yearsâ€”all of us helping with the case past the class, even past our graduations, when we could. It wasn’t until 2005 that I had the opportunity to visit the Polunsky Unit in Livingston with Professor Casarez. I vividly remember walking through security and being seated, waiting for Anthony to be escorted into the small visiting booth. Professor Casarez was in the middle of helping me make sense of my modern philosophy class when Anthony was brought in wearing his electric smile and brimming with hope at the sight of friendly faces.
Our brief conversation not only sealed my friendship with the man I had gotten to know second hand through transcripts, reports and interviews, but it confirmed for me what everyone who worked on the case already suspected: he was innocent. Meeting him reminded me that Anthony never compromised his integrity; he never admitted guilt for the sake of a lesser sentence. His family, especially his ever-faithful mother Doris, never doubted him and was steadfast in their belief that he wasn’t capable of the crimes for which he was convicted. The facts conveyed a similar conclusion.
Plenty of journalists and broadcasters have reported on Anthony’s case, but to make a very long and complicated story somewhat short: Anthony was charged as a result of testimony by one Robert Earl Carter, father to one of the murdered children and the state’s main suspect. Carter was pressured by investigating officers to name other suspects, since the officers’ theory was that no one person could kill two adults and four children on his or her own. Carter gave officers two unverifiable names and the names of two people that prosecutors would pursue: Carter’s wife and her cousin, Anthony. Prosecutors, namely District Attorney Charles Sebesta, agreed to drop the indictment against Carter’s wife if Carter would testify against Anthony. Carter did.
Sebesta, however, introduced Carter’s testimony at trial without ever disclosing to Anthony’s attorneys that Carter recanted his original claim about Anthony’s involvement. If Carter was consistent with anything in his last years before his execution it was admitting that Anthony was not involved in the murders. So consistent, in fact, that in his dying declaration before his execution he confessed one last time: â€œIt was me and me alone. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. I lied on him in court.â€
It wasn’t until 2006 (six years after Carter’s execution and fourteen since Carter first admitted he lied) that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Anthony’s original conviction and demanded he be taken off death row. The state, however, decided to retry Anthony and shunted him to a Burleson County jail. Judge Reva Towslee-Corbett, daughter of the same Judge H.R. Towslee who presided over Anthony’s original trial, set bail at one million dollars. The state brought in a number of special prosecutors to retry Anthony, including Patrick Batchelorâ€”the former Navarro County District Attorney who secured Cameron Todd Willingham‘s death sentence and, in the course of his work on Anthony’s case, attempted to convince Anthony and his attorneys to take a plea in return for a life sentence.
(Note: There’s a slew of jaw-dropping facts outlining the miscarriage of justice that was Anthony’s case that are better explored in other write-ups: from Sebesta intimidating Anthony’s then-girlfriend by announcing that she would be investigated as a co-defendant if she testified as an alibi witness minutes before she took the stand; to a now-retired medical examiner who testified that he “scientifically” matched a knife that Anthony owned to the one used at the crime by placing a duplicate of the knife in one of the victim’s skull caps while on the stand, damaging the evidence; to an alibi witness who refused to testify on Anthony’s behalf since it would mean having to admit that she as a Caucasian was dating his brother, a much younger black man. Read Pamela Colloff’s profile on Anthony’s case from October’s Texas Monthly for what I believe has been the most comprehensive account of the case and directly influenced the prosecution’s sudden change of heart.)
As Anthony’s attorneys continue to point out to this day, there was no new evidence connecting Anthony to the murders. The many prosecutors who looked at Anthony’s case were dealing with the same information that both convicted him and, ironically, convinced District Attorney Bill Parham and special prosecutor Kelly Siegler that Anthony is â€œan innocent man.” Such an uncompromising statement of Anthony’s innocence is an act by prosecutors that rarely (if ever) happens.
While the facts of the case convinced Parham and Siegler of Anthony’s evidence, it didn’t stop earlier special prosecutors from attempting to pursue a case based on bad science. The Austin Chronicle reported in 2009 that â€œprosecutorsâ€¦brought in Fort Bend County Deputy Keith Pikett to conduct a “scent lineup” and allegedly testify to Graves’ guilt based on his basset hound’s ability to pick up smells more than a decade after the crime was committed. Thankfully, the state decided to drop that angle. (The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals actually concluded in late 2010 that dog-scent lineups aren’t adequate enough evidence to secure a conviction in the state on the heels of a report by the Innocence Project of Texas debunking the unvalidated procedure that you can download here.)
Despite his release, Anthony still has a lot to contend with. Men and women who are able to prove their innocence are forced to suddenly readjust to a society that all but forgot them, and they have to make up for years of lost personal and professional experiences. In Anthony’s case, however, he has an enormous support system with an overwhelming number of family and friends standing behind him.
I spoke with him briefly the day of his press conference in Houston; it was four years since I first heard his voice. Not terribly unlike the first time, we spoke by phone, the obvious major difference being we weren’t in a rusty, paint-chipped booth anymore. He was free, and I did what everybody tends to ask men and women who survive what Anthony survived: I asked him how he felt.
“I don’t know,” he responded, the most honest answer I could have expected.
Anthony’s attorneys are working with Siegler and Parham as of mid November in pursuit of compensation for him under the Tim Cole Act. While Texas is home to the largest number of exonerations in the country, it also leads in its exoneree compensation policy. If approved, Anthony is eligible for $80,000 for each year he was wrongfully incarcerated and college tuition. He plans to use the latter to take communication classes in order to help other wrongfully convicted men and women, classes not unlike the one that introduced a group of wide-eyed journalism students to his case.
We weren’t attorneys, nor did we ever have to pretend to be. (Two members of the Graves team have become attorneys since graduating.) I don’t know that our experiences would have the same meaning if we had been law students. Friends and colleagues still ask how I feel about having worked on the case, and I keep responding the same way: It’s utterly surreal for me to not worry about Anthony after doing nothing but for seven years. I don’t have to worry about new junk science being used to convict him, and I don’t have to worry about the state using nothing more than circumstantial evidence as a means to execute him.
Relieved as I may be, the lessons we learned were nonetheless stark and jarring. The students I worked withâ€”my friendsâ€”we can laugh about it now, but two of us received threats of litigation, others were chased and threatened with a gun and most of us experienced first-hand the grim racial reality that exists in the small towns that we were pretty much oblivious to every time we drove past them.
We were laypeople, for all intents and purposesâ€”young journalism students digging extensively into a case that the state of Texas didn’t deem worthy of revisiting at the time. Those locals and witnesses who agreed to talk with us usually understood that we were working to prove what so many of them already believed: that Anthony was innocent and that the state made a harrowing mistake. It’s nothing short of humbling realizing that some of the work we did helped prevent it from becoming a deadly mistake.