Having spent eighteen years behind bars—twelve of them on death row—for a crime he did not commit, Anthony Graves could be forgiven for making a few impulse buys with the $1.45 million he was awarded in 2011 by the Texas Legislature for his wrongful incarceration. But other than the gleaming white BMW convertible he bought for himself two years ago, he has been careful with his money. He has done good works, like buying his mother a car, rebuilding her house in Brenham, Texas, and starting a foundation to help at-risk children whose parents are incarcerated.
This past Sunday, he gave back again, this time as a way of thanking Nicole Cásarez, the Houston attorney and journalism professor who fought for eight years to secure his freedom. “I wanted to repay Nicole but I knew she’d never accept money from me,” Anthony told me. “I thought about giving her an amazing trip somewhere, but I wanted to give her something that would live on.” Finally, after consulting with Nicole’s husband, Rueben, a plan was hatched. “I knew Nicole would try to talk me out of it if she knew what I was going to do,” Anthony said. “The whole thing had to be a secret.”
So Anthony gathered family and friends—Nicole included—together this past Sunday at Khyber, an Indian restaurant in West Houston, under the guise of throwing a goodbye dinner for himself. (Anthony is planning to move to New York City in 2014.) After the two dozen guests had arrived and sat down, Anthony stepped forward to address everyone. “This party isn’t actually for me, but for you, Nicole,” he said, cracking a smile as he turned to his longtime advocate and friend, who looked stunned. “I have something for you, so I want you to come up here,” he said, gesturing for her to come forward.
Tentatively, she rose from her seat and walked over to Anthony, who handed her a framed certificate. Her jaw dropped when she saw it, and she covered her mouth in surprise. “You’ve been punked!” Anthony said, laughing uproariously. Finally, after he egged her on, she agreed to read the words out loud:
The University of Texas Law School Foundation Gratefully Acknowledges the
NICOLE B. CÁSAREZ ENDOWED SCHOLARSHIP IN LAW
Established in 2013 with a gift from Anthony Graves to honor his defender, friend, sister, and angel, to recognize her and her students’ work to exonerate him from a wrongful conviction, and to encourage others to follow her example of hope, perseverance, courage, and humility.
“Never underestimate the power of dedicated people working for good.”
Half-laughing and nearly crying, Nicole told Anthony how grateful she was to be recognized and how honored she was that he had chosen to help students at her alma mater. (Both she and her husband are UT Law School graduates.) Many people in the room wiped away tears as she spoke. Four of them—Gia Cooper, Sarah Menendez, and Michael and Meghan Bingham—were former students of hers at the University of St. Thomas, and had helped Nicole investigate Anthony’s case. The Binghams, who had their six-week-old baby in tow that evening, had fallen in love while investigating the case. “We had a lot of time to talk on those long drives to Caldwell together,” Meghan told me with a laugh.
Anthony’s three sons—Anthony Jr., Alex, and Terrance—were also in attendance that night, as were Katherine Scardino and Jimmy Phillips, the veteran trial lawyers who, with Nicole, had been set to defend Anthony at his capital murder retrial. That trial never took place because then-special prosecutor Kelly Siegler dismissed all charges in October of 2010 after conducting her own investigation of the case. Siegler, who has remained good friends with Anthony in the years that have followed his release, was unable to attend the party because she was on location shooting Cold Justice, her new hit TV show, but she had texted him to let him know that she was thinking of him that evening.
After dinner, everyone lingered in the parking lot outside, in no hurry to leave. Anthony told me that he was glad that a few law students would be receiving financial assistance while they learned from Nicole’s legacy. “The students have some very big shoes to fill,” he said. “Nicole exemplifies what everyone should try to be—someone who fights against injustice.”