It’s hard to imagine a more terrifying experience than being wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder. You’re innocent, you don’t know anything about the crime. Yet the police somehow become convinced that you’re guilty, and a prosecutor makes a persuasive case to the jury. Next thing you know you’re a convicted killer, and the burden is on you to prove that you’re innocent. And if you’re really unlucky, the clock is ticking down to your execution date.
Fifteen years ago, most Texans never even considered that such a nightmare scenario could happen. No longer. Every year now, we hear more stories of innocent men freed from prison after spending years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit—stories that raise serious questions about the way our system works, from problems with eyewitness identification to flawed forensic science to overzealous prosecutors. Since 1989, Texas has had more than eighty exonerations, including two unusually high-profile cases in the past two years. Last fall, Michael Morton, who had been sentenced to life in prison for the brutal 1987 murder of his wife at their home in Williamson County, was finally released after DNA evidence linked another man to the crime. Not only was Morton innocent, he was in every sense a victim himself. Nonetheless, he spent nearly 25 years locked up.
Around the time that Morton got out, Anthony Graves was marking the one-year anniversary of his freedom. Graves, who had been given a death sentence for a horrifying 1992 multiple homicide in Somerville, was set free in October 2010 after eighteen years behind bars. Like Morton, he was innocent, but DNA played no part in Graves’s exoneration. He was saved by the attention to detail of the special prosecutor who had been hired to retry his case, a fearsome former Harris County assistant district attorney named Kelly Siegler. Over the course of several months, Siegler uncovered a staggering number of problems with Graves’s conviction and called into question the conduct of the original prosecutor, former Burleson County district attorney Charles Sebesta.
Today, both Morton and Graves are free men. But it would be foolish to think that there are not other innocent men and women in our prisons right now. How does this happen? Can it be stopped? Hoping to get some answers to these questions, TEXAS MONTHLY brought together a diverse group of individuals with firsthand knowledge of our criminal justice system for an evening of frank conversation.
Art Acevedo has been the chief of the Austin Police Department since 2007.
Rodney Ellis was elected to the state Senate in 1990 from District 13, in Houston.
Anthony Graves was wrongfully convicted in 1992 and released from jail in 2010. He lives in Houston.
Barbara Hervey is a judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals and the chair of the court’s fourteen-member Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit. She lives in San Antonio.
Kelly Siegler is a special prosecutor. She lives in Houston.
Craig Watkins is the DA of Dallas County and a former defense attorney.
Jake Silverstein, editor of TEXAS MONTHLY: Senator Ellis, we’re here tonight to discuss the issues in our criminal justice system that have led to some wrongful convictions and to talk about what can be done. But for starters, can you try to give us a sense of how serious you think this problem is?
Senator Rodney Ellis: I think it’s a major problem. We incarcerate more people than anyone else in the nation, we execute more people than anyone else in the nation, and we spend less on indigent defense than virtually everybody else in the country. You add those up, and it’s like 1-2-3: we have more DNA exonerations than any other state in the country. The criminal justice system is a government program. In every other sphere of public policy, the assumption is that sometimes the government makes a mistake. In this area, it could be life or death. Now, with that said, I’ll take the criminal justice system in America, on the whole, over any other in the world. And I am convinced that most people who are in jail are guilty. But we can do better.
Silverstein: Judge Hervey, the senator says he thinks we have a major problem. Would you define it the same way?
Judge Barbara Hervey: I would, but I have a little different spin. If the other 49 states think for a minute that they don’t have people in prison that shouldn’t be there, they’re mistaken. Texas is paying attention. My approach is that education is the key to the whole thing. You’ve got to get every person in the system on the same page with regard to wrongful convictions, because if they’re not on the same page, we’ll continue to have these problems.
And it’s about the public too. I recently went to a forum in Dallas with a lot of interested citizens, and I’ll tell you what, they were angry. This concept of innocence meant people were getting a bunch of money; it’s costing the state. And I said, “Wait a minute, let’s start at the beginning. How would any of you like to spend one day in prison for something you didn’t do?” And I was amazed. This group turned around and went, “Oh my God, this is horrible.”
Anthony Graves: We’ve got a problem from top to bottom in our criminal justice system. It starts with, number one, the investigation. And then we don’t have any accountability for the prosecutor. I am for the law, okay? I think we should all be working together. I should be willing to go and tell a prosecutor what I’ve seen if someone is committing a crime. But I wouldn’t, because you know why? They are going to knock on my door and say that because I saw it, it must have been me. We’ve got a problem, man. We are not trying to solve cases. We are trying to convict. I don’t care how much reform we do—if we don’t hold the prosecutor accountable, it’s not going to work. I think we’ve