Innocence Found

Why did Anthony Graves spend eighteen years behind bars—twelve of them on death row—for a crime he did not commit?
Anthony Graves on November 10, 2010.
Photograph by Sarah Wilson

The 6,640th day of Anthony Graves’s incarceration—October 27, 2010—began like any other. He awoke at five o’clock in the morning to the sound of the food cart rattling down the hall of the Burleson County jail, where a guard slid his breakfast tray through a slot in his cell door. At seven o’clock, the overhead fluorescent lights came on, illuminating the windowless cell where he had lived in solitary confinement for the past four years. Graves turned on the TV, switching it to the local morning newscast. The 45-year-old inmate compulsively watched the news, trying to keep up-to-date on a world he had left behind when a newcomer named Bill Clinton was running for president. When it came time for his allotted hour of exercise, a guard escorted him to an empty concrete room, where he walked briskly in circles. He could glimpse the sky through four small windows above him that were covered in chicken wire. Every so often, when the wind kicked up outside, he could feel the breeze against his skin.

Eighteen years earlier, Graves had been arrested and charged with the most notorious crime in Burleson County history: the brutal slayings on August 18, 1992, of a well-liked Somerville woman named Bobbie Davis, her daughter, and her four grandchildren, each of whom had been stabbed multiple times before their home was set ablaze. The crime’s prime suspect, Robert Carter—a man whom Graves had known only in passing—had fingered Graves as the killer. Although at least three people could place Graves at his mother’s apartment at the time of the crime and no physical evidence linked him to the scene, he was charged with capital murder. With the help of Carter’s testimony, he was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to death. Graves would likely have been executed if not for a pivotal admission by the case’s lead prosecutor, district attorney Charles Sebesta, who let slip that Carter had, in fact, confessed to having committed the murders by himself. (Carter was executed in 2000.) That disclosure led a federal court to overturn Graves’s conviction in 2006, after finding that Carter’s statements had been withheld from the defense. Yet the ruling did not strike down the original charges of capital murder, so Graves was moved from death row to the Burleson County jail, in the Central Texas town of Caldwell, to await retrial; he was housed in solitary confinement because of concerns about his safety. At his new trial, slated to begin on February 14, 2011, prosecutors again planned to seek the death penalty.

After recreation time, Graves sat down to write a letter, in which he shared his certainty that special prosecutor Kelly Siegler would persuade a jury to find him guilty. The former Harris County assistant district attorney had sent nineteen men to death row and was known for securing convictions in old, difficult cases that were often based on circumstantial evidence. “She has a win-at-all-costs reputation,” Graves noted in his careful handwriting. “She’ll throw mud against the wall and see what sticks.”

Graves’s letter was a response to a note I had sent him several days earlier. We had corresponded for four months while I worked on an article for TEXAS MONTHLY that detailed the lack of evidence tying him to the Davis murders (“ Innocence Lost,” October 2010), and we had continued the conversation in the weeks that followed. He knew that in mid-September—two days after the story was published—Siegler had requested a sit-down meeting with his attorneys. At that meeting, she had startled his defense team by acknowledging that she had serious reservations about the state’s case. She went on to say that they should not spend too much time on trial preparation but should give her a month to talk to various witnesses to ensure that she had not missed any key information. Siegler asked that they allow anyone who had been hesitant to talk in the past to meet with her and her investigator. If she found that there was insufficient evidence, she said, she would recommend that charges be dismissed.

Lead defense attorney Katherine Scardino was dubious; she had faced down Siegler before, and she suspected this was a tactical move, meant to delay her and her co-counsel from preparing for trial. Nicole Cásarez—a lawyer and journalism professor who had devoted the past eight years to investigating Graves’s case—worried that Siegler was trying to pump them for information that she could later exploit. Graves, too, was skeptical. “She’s interested in winning, not truth-seeking,” he wrote.

Graves never finished the letter. He was interrupted shortly after four o’clock, when the jail supervisor appeared outside his cell. Without explanation, the jailer unlocked the cell door and ordered Graves to follow him. Graves was allowed to walk without handcuffs. Bewildered, he was led to an interrogation room, where he saw that Cásarez and her co-counsel Jimmy Phillips Jr. were waiting. He was surprised, since they rarely visited unannounced.

Cásarez took his hands in hers and stared at him intently. “Remember you telling me that God is good?” she began. Years earlier, he had told her a story about how, on the day he learned that his conviction had been overturned, he had wanted to scream and shout, but he was mindful of being surrounded by men who still had execution dates. So instead he had looked up to the ceiling of his cell and said simply, “God is good.”

Graves nodded, studying her face for a clue as to what was going on.

“God is good,” Cásarez said, struggling to maintain her composure. “All charges have been dropped.”

He looked at her, dumbfounded.

“You’re free,” she said more emphatically. “You’re going home.”

“Are you playing with me?” he whispered.

Cásarez shook her head. “It’s over,” she said. “It’s finally over.”

On the table beside her was a dismissal order from the court filed at 3:57 p.m. that stated, “We have found no credible evidence which inculpates this defendant.” The decision to drop all

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