Anthony Graves was in the middle of writing a letter on Wednesday afternoon when a guard at the Burleson County jail appeared outside his cell. Without explanation, the guard unlocked Graves’s cell and ordered the 45-year-old inmate to follow him. “I didn’t have any idea what was going on,” Graves told me yesterday. “I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t putting handcuffs on me.” Bewildered, Graves was led to a part of the jail that he had never seen before. There, one of his attorneys, Nicole Cásarez—a journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas, in Houston, who has spent the past eight years investigating his case—was waiting for him. “God is good,” she told Graves. “It’s over. It’s finally over.”
So ended the State of Texas v. Anthony Charles Graves. After eighteen years behind bars—twelve of them on death row—Graves was released from the county jail. (My story about the case, “Innocence Lost,” ran in our October issue, and a short documentary about Graves is available here.) At the recommendation of the Burleson County district attorney’s office, state district judge Reva Towslee-Corbett signed a motion that stated, simply, “We have found no credible evidence which inculpates this defendant.” In other words, all capital murder charges were dropped. The decision to dismiss the case came quickly—so quickly, in fact, that Graves’s own family did not learn of his release until he called them as he stood outside the jail with his attorneys. Graves had to be shown how to call his mother on one of his attorney’s cell phones. “Hey Mama, what’s for dinner?” he said. “Put something on—I’m coming home.”
Not until yesterday morning did Burleson County district attorney Bill Parham and special prosecutor Kelly Siegler explain why they had made such a dramatic about-face. At a press conference at the D.A.’s office in Brenham—just across the street from the courthouse where Graves’s retrial was to have taken place early next year—Parham told reporters that he was “absolutely convinced” of Graves’s innocence after his office conducted a thorough examination of his case. Parham was clear that this was not a matter of having insufficient evidence to take to trial; charges were not dropped because too many witnesses had died over the years or because the evidence had become degraded. “There’s not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case,” he said. “There is nothing.”
Former Harris County assistant district attorney Kelly Siegler, who has sent nineteen men to death row in her career, went even further in her statements. Siegler laid the blame for Graves’s wrongful conviction squarely at the feet of former Burleson County D.A. Charles Sebesta. “Charles Sebesta handled this case in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare,” Siegler said. Over the past month, she explained, she and her investigator, retired Texas Ranger Otto Hanak, reviewed what had happened at Graves’s trial. After talking to witnesses and studying documents, they were appalled by what they found. “It’s a prosecutor’s responsibility to never fabricate evidence or manipulate witnesses or take advantage of victims,” she said. “And unfortunately, what happened in this case is all of these things.” Graves’s trial, she said, was “a travesty.”
That afternoon, Graves held his own press conference in Houston at the office of his trial attorney, Katherine Scardino. After an emotional entrance, in which Graves stopped to hug each family member and friend who had turned out to see him, he answered a battery of questions from the press. Dressed in the gray suit that had once been reserved for court appearances, he was remarkably composed as he described his time on death row as “hell” and explained that what had sustained him was the knowledge that he was innocent. “They took so much from me, but I never lost hope, because when you lose hope, you’re just a dead man walking,” he said. He cited Cásarez and her efforts to exonerate him as his “burst of hope.”
Of his release the previous day, Graves said, “For the first moments, for the few hours, I thought I would wake up and be right back in the cell. It just wasn’t real to me. It’s still not real to me. Eighteen years! Eighteen years I woke up to steel doors, sleeping on a steel bunk with a plastic mattress, going through hell, my own personal hell.” When reporters asked if he harbored any anger toward the people who had put him behind bars, he shook his head. “I’m not going to give them that kind of energy,” he said. “I gave them eighteen years, you know? So I’m ready to live now.” His voice never rose as he fielded questions about whether he agreed with the district attorney’s office that Sebesta had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct. “He has to sleep with that,” Graves said. “He has to look himself in the mirror. So I just have to give that to God. But I can’t give him any more of my time or energy. I’m ready to get back to my life with my family and friends.”
When Scardino addressed reporters, her tone was markedly different. “I’m angry,” she said. “I have never seen such blatant injustice to another human being as what was done to Anthony Graves.” She was particularly incensed that the previous special prosecutor, Patrick Batchelor—the same man who won a death sentence for Cameron Todd Willingham—had offered Graves a life sentence as recently as 2009. “A year ago, the prosecutor offered life,” she pointed out. “A year later, the same evidence that was there then was there today. That same evidence was there a year ago when they wanted him to plead to life.” When she had relayed the plea offer to Graves, she said, he had rejected it.
“I never hesitated,” Graves explained to reporters. “I said, ‘You either free me or kill me, but I’m standing on what’s right.’” He seemed at peace, and before he stood up to join his family and return to Brenham, he told reporters, “I’m looking forward to the rest of my life.”