The Texas prosecutor attacked Anthony Graves like a rabid dog, determined to bury him on Death Row for a horrendous crime, the brutal murder of a family of six, four of them between the ages of 4 and 9. Although Robert Earl Carter confessed to the August 1992 killings, the prosecutor was convinced he could not have acted alone.
After hours of interrogation, Carter relented and claimed Anthony Graves, his wife’s first cousin, was the murderer. Brought into the police station, an astonished Graves failed a lie detector test. Investigators were convinced they had their murderers.
Carter stood trial first and was quickly convicted. Then came the trial of Anthony Graves. Although witnesses placed him with his family the night of the murders, the weight of circumstantial evidence was against him. He ended up on death row, swearing his innocence and moving year by year closer to execution.
In 2000, strapped to the death-chamber gurney where he would breathe his last, Carter recanted his testimony and confessed he was the sole murderer of the family. He told authorities he only named Graves because he saw him on the street before he was arrested.
He had made a similar confession five minutes before he testified at Graves’s trial and again in 1997. It appears Charles Sebesta, the district attorney, was so bent on convicting Graves he suppressed this and other evidence that would have cleared him.
The Innocence Project of Texas got wind of the case and began a years-long investigation, led by Nicole Cásarez, journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. She and her students were so thorough that when Graves faced a second trial (after a Federal Appeal court cleared him but left him facing more imprisonment), the prosecutor assigned to the case ended up exonerating Graves before the trial. Finally, Graves was a free man.
While the Innocence Project was investigating, journalist Pamela Colloff, writer for the Texas Monthly, was conducting her own investigation. She, too, found enough holes in the criminal process to drive a truck through. Her lengthy account, “Innocence Found”, is a harrowing tale of justice so twisted that an innocent man spent 18 years in prison.
In 2011 Graves was awarded $1.45 million by the Texas Legislature for his wrongful imprisonment. Recently he threw a party, ostensibly a farewell before his planned move to New York in 2014. Nicole Cásarez and her students who worked on his case were invited. When all were gathered, Graves announced the real reason for the party, to announce his decision to fund a law scholarship in her honour.
The work of Nicole Cásarez and her students, Pam Colloff and the Innocence Project will continue as long as the state of Texas remains on its over-eager path to incarcerate criminals without adequate due process. I hope one day soon their efforts will no longer be necessary, but right now the Innocence Project has a backlog of 500 cases waiting for investigation and receives 150 letters a week requesting assistance. So until things improve in Texas, these people who work so hard for justice for the innocent give me hope.