Innocence Lost

Since August 23, 1992, Anthony Graves has been behind bars for the gruesome murder of a family in Somerville. There was no clear motive, no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, and the only witness against him recanted, declaring again and again before his death, in 2000, that Graves didn’t do it. If he didn’t, the truth will come out. Won’t it?

Editors’ note: On October 27, 2010, just a month after the publication of this story, the Burleson County district attorney’s office dropped all murder charges against Anthony Graves and released him from the county jail, where he was awaiting retrial.

I.

A few hours before dawn on a sticky summer night in Somerville, a one-stoplight town ninety miles northwest of Houston, police chief Jewel Fisher noticed the faint smell of burning wood. Fisher was following up on a late-night prowler call east of the main drag, in the predominantly black neighborhood that runs alongside the railroad tracks. Turning down the town’s darkened streets, he suddenly caught sight of a house on fire and realized that he was looking at the home of 45-year-old Bobbie Davis, a supervisor at the Brenham State School. Flames climbed the walls and skittered along the roof of the one-story brick structure, casting a murky orange glow. The windows had already been smashed in by several neighbors, who had screamed the names of the children they feared were trapped inside, pleading for them to wake up. Fisher quickly radioed for help, but when volunteer firefighters arrived, they discovered the bodies of Bobbie, her teenage daughter, and her four grandchildren inside. Each person had been brutally attacked and left to die in the blaze.

Word of the killings, which took place on August 18, 1992, traveled quickly through Somerville. The tragedy had no precedent; it was—and eighteen years later remains—the most infamous crime in Burleson County history. “Many in the neighborhood remarked that this was the kind of thing that you expected to happen somewhere else, not in Somerville,” read a front-page article in the Burleson County Citizen-Tribune . Bobbie had been bludgeoned and stabbed. Her sixteen-year-old daughter, Nicole Davis, a popular senior and top athlete at Somerville High School, had been bludgeoned, stabbed, and shot. Bobbie’s grandchildren—nine-year-old Denitra, six-year-old Brittany, five-year-old Lea’Erin, and four-year-old Jason—had been knifed to death. (Bobbie’s daughter Lisa was mother to the oldest and youngest children; Bobbie’s son, Keith, was father to the two middle girls.) All told, the victims had been stabbed 66 times. Even the youngest member of the Davis family, who stood three and a half feet tall, had been shown no mercy. Jason, who investigators would later determine had cowered behind a pillow, was stabbed a dozen times. His body had been doused in gasoline before the house was set on fire.

After daybreak, neighbors gathered to survey the ruins of the Davis home, and TV news crews from Houston came by helicopter, circling overhead. Two Texas Rangers arrived that morning, and two more later joined them, but they had few early leads. There were no obvious suspects and hardly any clues; the fire had ravaged the crime scene, and the killer—or killers—had left behind no witnesses. A night clerk at the Somerville Stop & Shop, Mildred Bracewell, came forward to say that two black men with a gas can had purchased gasoline shortly before the time of the murders. A hypnotist employed by the Department of Public Safety elicited a more precise description from her of one of the men, and a forensic artist sketched a composite drawing of the suspect. Still, there were no arrests.

Four days after the murders, the Rangers got their first break. Five hundred mourners—nearly one third of Somerville—turned out for the funeral, which was held in the local high school gymnasium. Among them was Jason Davis’s absentee father, a 26-year-old prison guard named Robert Carter, whose bizarre appearance that day drew stares. His left hand, neck, and ears were heavily bandaged, as was most of the left side of his face. When Bobbie’s sister-in-law approached him at the cemetery to inquire about his injuries, Carter’s wife, Cookie, quickly answered for him. “His lawn mower exploded on him,” she said. Carter added without explanation, “I was burned with gasoline.” His conversation with his deceased son’s mother, Lisa Davis, was no less strange. Lisa had suffered an unimaginable loss; that day, she would bury two children, as well as her mother, sister, and two nieces. (That her own life had been spared was a quirk of fate; had she not traded shifts with a co-worker at the Brenham State School, she would have been at the Davis home on the night of the murders.) As Carter reached to embrace her, she took a step back, startled by what she saw. “What happened?” she asked, studying his face. Abruptly, Carter turned around and walked away.

After the funeral, the Rangers paid Carter a visit at his home in Brenham, fifteen miles south of Somerville. “I figured y’all would be over here to talk to me because of the bandages,” he told them. The Rangers had learned from Lisa that she had recently filed a paternity suit against Carter, a first step in obtaining child support. Carter had been served with papers just four days before the killings. Ranger Ray Coffman, the case’s lead investigator, read Carter his Miranda rights and asked him to come in for questioning.

That afternoon, at the DPS station in Brenham, Carter sat down with the four veteran Rangers assigned to the case: Coffman, Jim Miller, George Turner, and their supervisor, Earl Pearson. The Rangers were skeptical that one person could have brandished the three weapons used in the murders—a gun, a knife, and a hammer—and had surmised early on that the Davis family had been killed by as many as three assailants. Carter was grilled by the Rangers, but he remained steadfast in his insistence that he knew nothing about the killings. He had burned himself, he told them, while setting fire to some weeds in his yard. By evening, he and the Rangers had reached an impasse, and he agreed to take a polygraph exam. Three of the investigators—Coffman, Miller, and Turner—drove him to Houston, where the test could be administered by a licensed polygraph examiner. He failed it sometime after 11 p.m.

The Rangers continued to interrogate

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