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If it’s something you’d just as soon not think about, chances are Pamela Colloff has written about it for TEXAS MONTHLY. Here is a partial list of the subjects she’s covered since coming to work at the magazine thirteen years ago: murder, arson, abortion, heroin addiction, hate crimes, illegal immigration, murder, meth addiction, the Charles Whitman shootings, the Branch Davidian standoff, murder, and war. Earlier this year, she wanted to do a music story, which seemed like a good idea, since her previous two pieces had covered the brutal murder of a family in Alba and the Aggie Bonfire tragedy. Only it turned out that the “music story” was an oral history of the tragic killing of Tejano superstar Selena Quintanilla Perez.
It’s not entirely clear where Pam’s interest in death and destruction comes from. She appears to have had a healthy, happy upbringing. If you were to meet her on the street you’d find her to be an uncommonly cheerful, polite person. To my knowledge she has no weird hobbies. Nonetheless, she carries on writing stories that take her deep inside the most painful material she can find. The key word there is “deep.” Pam is a relentless, meticulous reporter. She reads everything, talks to everyone. She’s like a human microscope, carefully positioning one disturbing slide after another under her lens.
This month is no exception. In one of the longest articles we’ve ever published, Pam tells the story of Anthony Graves, a man from Brenham who was convicted in 1994 for the grisly murder of a family in Somerville (“Innocence Lost”). For the past eighteen years, Graves has vigorously maintained his innocence. No physical evidence connects him to the crime scene; he had no obvious motive; and the only eyewitness against him was the crime’s prime suspect, who recanted again and again before his execution, in 2000, stating that Graves had had no part in the killings. In 2006 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Graves’s original conviction and ordered that he be tried again, which he will be in early 2011. Once more, the state will seek the death penalty.
Though Pam’s story is complex, covering the transcripts of two full capital murder trials and numerous pretrial hearings; three reports filed by the Texas Rangers; countless affidavits, depositions, appellate briefs, and exhibits; hours of grand jury testimony; and interviews with about thirty people, the questions behind it are simple: Can our legal system falter? If Graves is innocent, will the truth come out? We know the answer to the first question. It’s written on the faces of the more than forty wrongfully imprisoned men who’ve been exonerated by DNA evidence in Texas. The second question is more complicated. Hanging over it is the intense controversy surrounding the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Corsicana man who was executed in 2004 for setting the house fire that killed his three young daughters. Reassessments of the forensic science that convicted Willingham have since determined that the fire was almost certainly an accident. But last fall, as the state’s Forensic Science Commission was preparing to hear a report to this effect from its arson expert, Governor Rick Perry replaced three members of the commission, effectively postponing the conclusion. Since then, the commission’s subcommittee on the Willingham case has met privately, though it cannot postpone a final decision forever: On September 17, the week this magazine hits newsstands—and a short documentary on the Graves case appears on our website—it is scheduled to deliver its report. No matter what, its findings are sure to cause a stir.
No one wants to think about the possibility that the State of Texas has executed, or could execute, an innocent man. But if we’re going to hand out the ultimate punishment, we have to be willing to examine the system by which it’s delivered. And this is exactly what Pam’s story does.
Senior executive editor Paul Burka on George W. Bush, the author; executive editor Mimi Swartz on a parent’s death; senior editor Michael Hall on Lance Armstrong and Roger Clemens; and a special report on the debate over illegal immigration in Texas.