News & Politics

Wrongfully Convicted Exoneree Gets $1.45 Million Award After Student Journalists Reinvestigate His Case

One Texan exoneree was awarded money for a wrongful conviction, but what's next for the state with highest wrongful death penalty convictions?
Thanks to a bill authored by Texas State Representative Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, and sponsored by Senator Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, Texas exoneree Anthony Graves willreceive $1.45million from the state in compensation for the 18 years he was wrongly imprisoned on death row for crimes he did not commit.

In a press release from June 30, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs announced that her office would pay Graves the amount owed to him under state law in the form of monthly annuity checks.

Graves found out about the bill’s passage and governor’s signature after asking a co-worker to look over the signed bills that Texas Governor Rick Perry announced over the weekend. Perry signed House Bill 417 on June 17, and it became law the following Monday. Under the new statute, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is required to help the state’s exonerees by providing them information on how to initiate the compensation process. The new law also amends 2009’s Tim Cole Act, which granted exonerees college tuition and as much as $80,000 per year served.

HB 417 now allows wrongly convicted men and women to be eligible for health care through the TDCJ and protects them from unfair attorney fees used toward claiming compensation. Attorneys now have to disclose a “reasonable hourly rate” and are prohibited from collecting fees before the exoneree is determined to be eligible for compensation by the state comptroller.

Having passed the House unanimously (143-0) and almost unanimously by the Senate (30-1), HB 417 is the latest legislative effort addressing a growing concern for how the wrongfully convicted are treated after their release. While Texas leads the nation in its efforts to alleviate the financial burden on exonerees, it also leads the nation in the number of incarcerations, executions and wrongful convictions.

Scott Henson, a lobbyist in Texas during the previous legislative session who works on criminal justice reform legislation alongside the Innocence Project of Texas, said that Texas has been gradually expanding exoneree benefits since the state passed its first compensation law in 2001. Henson explained that while there is a core Democratic base that supports the legislature’s push for reform, the most recent bipartisan display can be traced to a political movement that often times disagrees with the base.

According to Henson, Texas since the turn of the century has been following a trend of libertarian and religious ideology that is more skeptical of law enforcement and expanded government. “Over the last five sessions, a coalition of grassroots conservative and traditional critics of mass incarceration and government overreach has helped create a majority for these legislative reform bills.”

HB 417 itself is a narrowly defined expansion of benefits for non-habeas claims of innocence like Anthony Graves'. The bill will provide assistance to the wrongfully convicted who successfully prove they were tried and convicted based on an error of the court that violated their constitutional rights and who have the prosecutor agree that the case was dropped on grounds of “actual innocence.”

Unlike the number of exonerees who are released nationwide, Graves was able to find a job that affords him health insurance. He now works as an investigator for the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit legal organization that represents death penalty defendants.

Graves said he hopes that the legislature can further expand the benefits to others who do not fall under the current parameters of compensation eligibility. “It’s good, but I think they should have gone further,” he said. “Someone who has been released from prison for either prosecutorial misconduct or on actual innocence grounds should be allowed compensation. But that might be too liberal for Texas.”

In spite of his legislative victory and recent professional achievement, Graves continues to face hurdles from the state as he tries to rebuild his life. The Attorney General's Office reported in April that Graves owed approximately $5,400 in child support for five of the 12 years he spent on death row.

While the state already garnishes his wages from his work with the Texas Defender Service, it blocked a $250 speaking honorarium from a Prairie View A&M University speaking event. The Attorney General's Office maintains that the honorarium was blocked by an automated system without any influence from the office.

The Houston Chronicle reported that students began their own collection for the honorarium that Graves was originally promised. “Sometimes it's $1, sometimes it's $5, sometimes it's $10,” one of the students told the Chronicle. “People are doing anything they can to help Mr. Graves.”

Graves also just returned from a speaking tour through Germany, Sweden and France, where he spoke to audiences about his experiences on death row and how he believes it is disproportionally targeted toward minorities and the poor. While in Texas’ Allan B. Polunsky Unit – home to the state’s death row – Graves was able to connect with various supporters and activists from abroad. Together the supporters created and continue to maintain a websitefor Graves.

Separately, the Texas Moratorium Network raised $3,000 to help Graves settle into his new life,
presenting him with a checka few days before his first Thanksgiving dinner with family in 18 years.

The newfound groundswell of support for Graves’ struggle for compensation began shortly after his release last year. The judge who signed Graves’ order of release neglected to recognize Graves’ innocence and Burleson County District Attorney William Parham declined to ask the judge to amend the order to include the words “actual innocence.”

Without those two words, the Texas Comptroller’s Office sent a letter to Graves’ attorneys in February denying his request. In response, the lawyers reached out to the governor’s office. “We understand that Anthony Graves is innocent, and have been in contact with his lawyers, who are pursuing every available option to ensure that he is granted the restitution he deserves,” a spokesperson for Gov. Rick Perry told the Houston Chronicle soon after the comptroller’s decision was released.

Perry talked to press days after Graves’ release and announced that the case proved Texas’ criminal justice system works. “I think we have a justice system that is working, and he’s a good example of — you continue to find errors that were made and clear them up,” Perry told media at the time. “That’s the good news for us, is that we are a place that continues to allow that to occur.”

Henson, however, previously pointed out that Graves was only exonerated after federal intervention. “It took a federal appellate court to overturn this conviction and order a new trial based on the extreme prosecutorial misconduct that's being alleged,” Henson wrote on his Texas criminal justice blog
Grits for Breakfast. “Texas state appellate courts had already rubber-stamped Graves' death papers and would have sent him to the execution chamber by now, if they had their way.”

Lubbock attorney and Innocence Project of Texas Chief Counsel Jeff Blackburn has been helping Graves obtain compensation and said he believes the only reason the Graves case became an issue was the strong media exposure. Journalism professor and Graves attorney Nicole Casarez agreed, adding that media exposure also helped pressure the state into reinvestigating the case.

“Because of the unique circumstances in Anthony’s case, we were able to make it happen,” Casarez said. “And hopefully someone else can look at that and try to do the same for other cases.”

Early media coverage of the case came as a result of an investigation conducted by journalism students from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Casarez, who became an active lawyer in the case at Graves’ behest, has been working on the case since 2002. Under her supervision, the students were able to help uncover much of what prosecutors discovered on their own last year that eventually helped clear Graves of the charges against him.

Casarez also credits much of the latest support for Anthony’s case to coverage like “Innocence Lost,” a Texas Monthly article by editor and writer Pamela Colloff, who wrote a comprehensive investigative summary of the case in one of the longest articles ever published by the magazine.

Graves’ case and his lack of compensation were also featured on a recent episode of "48 Hours: Mystery," which producers announced garnered the show’s largest audience response ever. The show’s Facebook and Twitter accounts were flooded with responses nationwide from viewers supporting Graves’ petition for compensation.

“I’ve had good people doing great things on my behalf, like Nicole Casarez and her students,” Graves said of the media attention. “The whole world was watching.”

Graves always maintained his innocence throughout the original investigation into the grisly murder of a Somerville, Texas woman named Bobbie Joyce Davis, her daughter and four grandchildren. The state’s first case against him was heavily dependent on testimony from co-defendant Robert Earl Carter, father to one of the grandchildren, who confessed to the murders.

Carter was initially pressed by investigators who already concluded he could not have killed the six victims single-handedly. It has since been revealed that then-Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta arranged to drop charges against Carter’s wife, Theresa, if he would testify against her cousin, Graves. Robert Carter was executed in 2000, but not before one final attempt at clearing Anthony Graves.

“Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it,” Carter declared moments before his execution. “I lied on him in court.”

It was also discovered that Sebesta withheld Carter’s recantation from the defense, an act that the Fifth U.S. Court of Appeals found to be negligent and it also could have helped the Graves’ attorneys prove innocence and led to the court overturning Graves’ conviction in 2006. The state nonetheless decided to retry Anthony with the same evidence and kept him in county jail for four years until a well-respected and equally feared prosecutor — with an undefeated capital murder conviction record — was brought in to re-prosecute the case. What the prosecutor found, however, stunned both Graves’ supporters and detractors.

In fall 2010, former Harris County assistant district attorney Kelly Siegler, acting as a special prosecutor on behalf of Burleson County, dropped all charges against Graves. Siegler proceeded to publically deride the original prosecutor’s work on the case, alleging that Sebesta had no substantive case against Graves to begin with.

“This is not a case where the evidence went south with time or witnesses passed away or we just couldn't make the case anymore,” Siegler said at the press conference announcing Graves’ release. “He is an innocent man.”

In an email, Siegler expressed satisfaction with the new statute and Graves’ prospects for compensation. “It is only right that the State of Texas make just restitution to Anthony Graves for the fact that eighteen years of his life were taken from him,” she said. “No amount of money can ever get him those years back or make him whole; it is the very least we can do."

Siegler added that the new law could potentially address the larger issue of government misconduct and expressed how such misconduct harms not only the wrongly convicted but also the victims’ families, who trust the prosecutor to pursue justice on their behalf. “With this new law,” she wrote, “the State can now also address any cases discovered where an innocent man was convicted due to the manipulation and deceit at the hands of an unethical prosecutor.”

Now that Graves’ compensation request was approved, he is unable to seek compensation through civil action against the state or the prosecutors who tried his original case. Changes made under the Tim Cole Act prevent exonerees from suing the state, municipalities or other parties who may have led to the wrongful conviction.

“If Burleson County were interested in doing what’s right, they’d sell their courthouse and pay what’s due to Anthony,” Blackburn said. He added, however, that winning a civil case would have been very difficult and that the odds of willing a civil suit against the county that prosecuted Graves were “slightly greater than zero, but not much.”

In hopes of fully clearing Graves’ name, his attorneys filed a suit earlier this year asking that the state attorney declare Graves innocent. “It’s a novel case, but we believe he’s entitled to it under the Texas Constitution,” Blackburn. “Institutional resistance to any kind of relief is really strong in Texas."

For now, Graves continues to work with his former fellow inmates as an investigator and will continue to pursue legal remedies to clear his name. He hopes to be an advocate for criminal justice reform who can educate more people about the flaws he sees in the death penalty.

“I cannot walk away from this,” Graves said. “I was down there with those guys, and as long as we’re murdering them, I can’t walk away.”

Full disclosure: I was a member of the student journalist team from Houston that reinvestigated the Graves case. Iworked on the case between 2003 and 2006. You can read
my personal account of the caseand my immediate reaction to Anthony Graves' release on the Innocence Project’s Innocence Blog.
Chester Soria is a journalist living in Brooklyn who has worked as a communications assistant for the Innocence Project. He will graduate from Cuny Graduate School of Journalism in 2012.
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