Anthony Graves: Maintaining Innocence And Humanity Against All Odds

Question: How do you seem, um, normal? Or not bitter or angry? I mean, you spent nearly twenty years in prison for a crime you did not commit. Yet, here you are. Smiling. Talking. Happy.

Answer: First, I knew I had not committed these horrible crimes. No person, or thing, or place could change who I was as a man. I focused on that every day. I could not control what people did or said, or what happened to me, but I could control myself and my reactions. I still live that way.

That is my best recollection of a conversation I had with Anthony Graves recently. The words might not be exactly correct, but the sentiment is spot on. Forgive me, I was emotionally overwhelmed. During our conversation, we both hugged, laughed and one of us cried while the other never stopped smiling.

I first learned of the incredible travesty of justice foisted upon Anthony Graves in 2010 when I read a blood-chilling article in Texas Monthly in late 2010. I had read about other people in Texas who had been railroaded by the criminal justice system. This, however, struck a particular nerve with me simply because of a coincidence of geography.

anthony-graves-maintaining-innocence-and-humanity-against-all-odds-imageWhen I had the honor and privilege of meeting him recently, it was, again, a coincidence of geography. We were seated at adjoining tables at an awards banquet. I saw him and immediacy jumped out of my seat to shake his hand. We began talking and I mentioned that I used to live in Brenham. He leaned in to give me a hug. All the while, he never stopped smiling. I finally asked him how could he appear to normal and happy despite being wrongfully convicted and sent to die. He told me he can only control himself, and his reactions to things. He cannot control other people and what they say and do.

I won’t go into all the facts of his case (but please read the Texas Monthly article above for a full background) but, in short, Anthony Graves was wrongfully convicted of capital murder in Burleson County, Texas in the early 1990’s. He spent nearly twenty years in prison and more than a decade on death row. Mr. Graves lived in Brenham, Texas in the 1990’s. This was of particular importance to me because I lived in Brenham, Texas in the 1990’s. That is where our similarities ended. After that, Mr. Graves went to prison for a crime he did not commit. I moved to Houston, went to high school, college and law school.

Mr. Graves had no motive to kill six people he didn’t know. Robert Carter, his so called accomplice in the murder, was seen around town covered in bandages and even admitted to being burned. Carter had a strong motive to commit these atrocious crimes, as he was involved in a paternity suit involving one of the deceased children. He had no alibi and was covered in horrific burns. He confessed to the Texas Rangers.

There was also no evidence against Mr. Graves, other than the obviously guilty Carter mentioning Mr. Graves flippantly to try to save his own skin. Carter even called Mr. Graves by the wrong name once or twice, mistakenly referring to him as Kenneth. No physical evidence tied him to the slayings. The Texas Rangers and local police conducted a shoddy (charitably described) investigation. Key witnesses were either not interviewed or not identified. There were cross-racial identification issues (again, charitable) that supposedly tied Mr. Graves to the general vicinity of the crime scene. Prosecuting Mr. Graves simply made no sense. The District Attorney had no motive, no evidence and no real reason to go after Mr. Graves. Why did they choose to prosecute Mr. Graves? I couldn’t begin to explain that.

Eventually, after nearly twenty years, Mr. Graves’ conviction was overturned and his case was dismissed. He was a free man. He eventually received $1.4 million dollars from the State for his wrongful imprisonment, but even that was a fight.

I learned several key things that night. First, it’s utterly selfish and pointless to worry about things like traffic, or people being inconsiderate or rude, or the usual trivial annoyances in life. We often let these banalities bother us. How many times have we all complained about somebody taking a parking spot from us, or waiting in line, or being placed on hold? When compared to the near two-decade-long nightmare bestowed upon Mr. Graves, these minor problems seem completely inconsequential. Mr. Graves maintained his humanity and dignity over all those years, and beyond. If he can still smile and laugh after what he has been through, surely we can worry less about the small things that bother us.

Second, and more importantly, we should all be outraged at the intentional and deliberate actions of the prosecutor, Charles Sebesta. While he has lost his license to practice law, Sebesta maintains on his personal website that Mr. Graves is in fact guilty of these heinous crimes. Recent changes in the law call for very limited consequences to prosecutors who cheat, coerce and lie in order to obtain convictions. There are, in my opinion, very few prosecutors who deliberately cheat and break the rules. These select few cast an awful shadow on their fellow prosecutors. There simply have to be real consequences for those who have intentionally obfuscated the truth, hidden or deliberately failed to disclose evidence and broken the rules. I’m not saying those who make honest mistakes should be immediately disbarred, but how many more stories like Anthony Graves, or Michael Morton, must we see before real ramifications emerge?

Third, isn’t it time for the State that leads the nation in executions to seriously re-examine the death penalty? How many innocent people have to be sent to prison, or sent to death row, or executed, before we thoroughly re-evaluate our laws. How many people must be exonerated by DNA, or newly discovered evidence, or the emergence of prosecutorial misconduct before we stop trying to kill more of our citizens?