Searching for Truth

Pamela Colloff talks about reporting on an eighteen-year-old murder case and interviewing Anthony Graves, who was sent to death row for the crime.
Searching for Truth
Pamela Colloff

In 1992 Somerville authorities made a gruesome discovery in the charred remnants of a house fire: a woman and five children had been violently murdered and set ablaze. In nearby Brenham, the prime suspect—a prison guard named Robert Carter—identified 26-year-old Anthony Graves as the killer, even though no physical evidence or plausible motive linked him to the crime. Graves and Carter were both tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in 1994. Carter would later proclaim Graves’s innocence, including moments before Carter’s own execution in 2000. Fourteen years after his arrest, in 2006, Graves’s conviction was overturned by a federal court, but he has remained in jail ever since, awaiting retrial. He will face the death penalty again at his new trial, which is slated for early 2011. Senior editor Pamela Colloff studied the eighteen-year-long court record and interviewed many of the main players in the case to understand the events that have kept Graves behind bars for nearly two decades. Here’s the story behind the story.

How did you learn about Anthony Graves? What made you decide to pursue this story?
I first heard about Graves’s case nearly a decade ago, when it received some media coverage. Beyond reading a few newspaper articles, I did not look into the case. I can’t recall exactly what my reasoning was at the time, but I think I was skeptical of Graves’s innocence claims. So many inmates who I had written about or interviewed had claimed that they were innocent but, of course, that was rarely true, so I was dubious. Then, in 2006, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Graves’s conviction. It’s unusual for a federal court to do so—and in a death penalty case, no less—so I began reading up on the case. My initial plan was to write about this case shortly before the retrial . . . but then there were endless delays. So finally, earlier this year, I just began reporting the story.

In a criminal case this complicated, how do you know where to begin? What was the process like preparing and researching for this story?
I learned a great deal by reading the transcripts of both Carter’s and Graves’s trial. I also learned a tremendous amount by reading the Texas Rangers’ reports—which detail their investigation of the case—and the transcript of their initial interrogation of Carter. Those documents really laid out the case pretty well, and the reporting that followed consisted of trying to fill in the (many) gaps that remained.

You interviewed witnesses, attorneys, family members, and Graves. Did you ever get the sense that people had forgotten specifics of the case? How did you get them to open up?
Because Graves’s retrial is relatively soon, and because people have been living with this case for so long, their recall was actually surprisingly good. As far as getting people to open up, I would say that nearly everyone who spoke to me really wanted to talk to me—particularly Graves and his family—so it was just a matter of listening. I was frustrated that the prosecution and many of the prosecution’s witnesses, particularly the Texas Rangers, either declined to talk to me or did not respond to interview requests.

You had learned a great deal about Graves before you interviewed him. Was he what you were expecting?
I was amazed at what good spirits he was in when I met him. I don’t know if Graves’s upbeat nature is a front or not, but it surprised me. Were I in the same situation—living in solitary confinement—I feel certain that I would suffer from severe depression.

What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story?
Nothing made sense. Carter told so many different stories, and none of them added up. Perhaps a person can never explain why he or she would kill children, but I wanted more closure and more answers than the court record could provide about who Carter was, what he was like, and what motivated him to kill the Davis family.

Did this story present any unique challenges compared with those you’ve written in the past?
This is definitely the most complicated and longest story that I have ever written. Digesting all of the information and then figuring out how to piece it together in a way that would make sense to readers—and how to hold their interest through a 14,000-word story—was very, very challenging.

Was there anything you wanted to include in your story that you didn’t have room for?
I wanted to know more about Cookie, Carter’s wife, and I managed to track her down at a chain store where she works at in Brenham. She was very friendly until I explained who I was and what I was writing about. After that, she clammed up and walked away.

Did covering this story affect your view of the justice system?
When I asked one of professor Nicole Cásarez’s student volunteers this very same question, she said “Yes! The lesson I learned is that you should hire the best lawyer you can afford.” I have to agree.

Will you attend Graves’s trial?
I intend to. I think it will be an absolutely fascinating trial to watch, given the legal talent on both sides of the case, and given how high the stakes are. We’ll see whether Graves is convicted again and sent to death row.

What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
That even someone with three alibi witnesses can be sent to death row.

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