[dropcap]M[/dropcap]ost 26-year-olds are thinking and working toward a bright future. Anthony Graves was one of them. A young father of three living in Brenham, TX, Graves had a job, was living a decent life and enjoying lots of quality time with his family. Not in his wildest dreams did he imagine he would be wrongly convicted of murder and live a terrifying chapter that would last for more than 18 years.
On August 18, 1992, 45-year-old Bobbie Davies of Somerville, TX, her 16-year-old daughter and her four grandchildren were brutally murdered and their house set on fire. At their funeral, Robert Carter, 26, the father of one of the late grandchildren, was seen with bandages and burns. He was taken into custody and arrested after confessing to the murders; however, the police remained unconvinced he acted alone. After an interrogation that lasted 14 hours, Carter was told, “We will let you go when you give us a name.” Under pressure, Carter blurted the name of his accomplice as Anthony Graves, whom he barely knew.
The police picked up Graves and took him to the Burleson County police station. He had an airtight alibi—that he had been with his girlfriend, brother and mother at the very time of the crime. Thus, Graves was sure the police had made a mistake they would soon rectify. Instead, however, he got the shock of his life when he heard these words: “You are under arrest for capital murder.” He could only reply: “What, capital murder? Me? I have never harmed anyone. Me? Are you sure?” Graves’ pleas fell on deaf ears, despite the lack of any physical evidence linking him to the crime. Thus, he was accused of killing a family he had never even met. Unbeknown to Graves, Carter recanted his story shortly thereafter, admitting Graves was not involved. He maintained Graves’ innocence during the trial and over the years. Even on his execution gurney in 2000, Carter’s last words were: “It was me and me alone. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. I lied on him in court.”
Three weeks after the arrest, the Burleson county grand jury indicted Graves for capital murder. In 1994, he was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Although he fully cooperated with authorities, he never confessed and always refused to cop a plea to a lesser sentence.
Graves spent the next 12 years in solitary confinement in a 6- by 11-foot cell. He describes his experience during this period: “When I was sentenced to death, I did not know that this sentence would also mean that I would have 12 years without any human contact; i.e., my mother, my son, my friends. All those people were stripped from my life because of this injustice. I did not know it would mean 12 years of having my meals slid through a small slot in a steel door like an animal. I did not know it would mean 12 years alone in a cage the size of a parking spot, sleeping on a concrete steel bunk and alone for 22 to 24 hours a day—all for a crime I did not commit. The injustice.”
Eventually, a group of journalism students from St. Thomas University in Houston, TX, paved the way for a ray of hope for Graves. While working on The Innocence Project under the leadership of their journalism professor Nicole Casarez, the group uncovered many holes in the prosecution’s case against Graves.
In 2006, six years after Carter’s death, and 14 years after Carter recanted his story, Graves got a break in his case. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that his 1994 murder conviction was not properly obtained because District Attorney Charles Sebesta had withheld Carter’s statements from the defense and put witnesses on the stand who had given false statements about Graves. He was taken off death row. The state of Texas decided to retry him and set his bond at $1 million. He spent the next four years in jail awaiting a retrial.
District Attorney Bill Parham was hired to retry the case. He hired Assistant District Attorney Kelly Siegler as a special prosecutor, who had never lost a death penalty case. However, after five months of comprehensive investigation, Parham announced: “We found not one piece of credible evidence that links Anthony Graves to the commission of this capital murder. He is an innocent man.”
After 12 years on death row, 16 years in solitary confinement and two execution dates, Graves walked out of prison a free man on October 27, 2010. He became the 12th innocent person set free from death row in Texas. The first person he longed to see was his 62-year-old mother. “Mama, it’s over, Mama,” he said, upon seeing and hugging her. “Eighteen years we’ve fought this fight a long time. It’s over. Justice has been done for me.”
In 2012, Graves received $1,504,747 in state compensation for his wrongful conviction. In 2013, he started a scholarship at the University of Texas Law School in the name of Professor Nicole Casarez. He also started The Anthony Graves Foundation “to give children left behind by the criminal justice system, a choice and a chance to live happy, productive lives, and become the powerful, new foundation of our communities.”
Today, Graves is a sought-after speaker, shedding light on the flaws in the judicial system, and more. A 48 Hours documentary about his life won an Emmy in 2012. MannaEXPRESS recently interviewed Graves on his experience.
MEO: When you were first arrested, what role did your faith play, or did it not come in at all?
AG: I grew up in a Christian home. I believed in God because that is what I was taught. I grew up knowing there is a God because my mother told me this and I went to church. I sang in the choir, but I never had a situation where God revealed himself to me and I knew for a fact. When this happened to me, it was a shock and it hadn’t dawned on me at that point that my faith was going to be tested. I was in a naïve state to even believe this was even happening to me. Furthermore, I was looking forward to going home, because I hadn’t done anything wrong.
MEO: Then what happened?
AG: After three weeks in jail, they indicted me on this case. They brought me the papers and told me I had been indicted on capital murder. At the time I had been reading the Bible because, as I said, my mother told me there was a God. I needed God, but then when this came, I was upset and I threw my Bible to the corner. My faith had been shaken. I had been reading the Bible every day and asking God to help me because I didn’t know why they brought me here, and just like that they brought me an indictment. I was so upset. I did not know what to believe. How come my God who said He loves me allowed these folks to come and indict me on something I did knew absolutely nothing about? But that night I didn’t get much rest because of everything that was going on. The Bible was still over there in the corner. I guess it was about 2 or 3 in the morning that I was tossing and turning and something told me to pick the Bible up. Since I was bored, frustrated and had nothing to do, I picked it up and I read the Scripture that says God will not put on me more than I could bear. Once I read and started understanding it, I regained my focus on my faith.
MEO: How did this scripture minister to you?
AG: A calm came over me. I knew God was talking to me through His Scriptures to tell me to hold on—that He is not going to harm me or let anyone harm me. This left me in a state where I remained sane throughout this whole ordeal. This was how my faith began carrying me. It started building me up and I started developing strength and character and understanding everything about me—and till I got introduced to a new person which is the person on the inside of me that I never knew until I understood my relationship with God.
MEO: As your faith carried you for 18 years did you feel in your heart that one day you would be free or did you come to the place where if you had to face death penalty, so be it?
AG: Eighteen years, your emotions are on a roller coaster. I felt all the above, depending on what day it was. This is the kind of situation where you are living in hell, whatever you think your hell is. There were some days I felt like “If they execute me, so what?” It does not matter because I am tired of living like an animal and people calling me something I am not. I was tired of the system saying it is okay to kill me for something I didn’t do. So if they want to go on and end this for me, fine. I was no longer afraid of death. I was always repeating the line of the song that says: “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” The only way you can get there is to die first.
MEO: Although you were staring at death, how come you did not take a plea deal for a life in prison sentence?
Knowing that I am innocent. I was not going to lay down my life for something I didn’t do.
MEO: How did you find it in your heart to forgive those who betrayed you—especially your best friend? Where did that forgiveness come from?
AG: Forgiveness is called understanding God’s love. Because I knew that God loves me unconditionally, who am I to put conditions on people’s love? My best friend made a mistake. He was preyed on and set up to say things in order for them to push me behind bars. What happened to me was something that totally changed my life and gave me a purpose.
MEO: How did you come about your foundation, and what does it do?
AG: There’s a connection between hungry children and the high rate of juvenile crime. What happens is when they go home, a lot of them are not fed. I believe that through their stomachs, you can get to their minds. My purpose is to feed them, educate, teach them to respect the law and know what their rights are. How can you preach to them when their stomachs are growling? America feeds a lot of kids in different parts of the world, but doesn’t look at those right under their nose. The foundation comes from my journey of 18 years. This is why I know God is so good because of what He exposed me to. I am blessed to have this organization to do this great work with God on my side.
Emmy winning video of Anthony Graves’ story
MEO: What message do you have for those that have loved ones behind bars who are innocent?
AG: Keep loving your loved ones. It is what they need more importantly. Stay involved with them. Send them a letter. Let them know how you are doing. Keep encouraging them and continue to ask them to keep God in their lives first. In your letters, send them a lot of love because love conquers all.
MEO: What is your message to innocent people behind bars?
AG: Take it one day at a time. Keep your head up; keep fighting. Don’t waver or compromise because once you do, the system is not that forgiving. You have to stay strong in your belief of innocence and fight for it. Reach out and write to anyone you can and ask them to help you save your life. You cannot do it alone; get up, take out your pen and paper and write to everyone. At the end of the day, thank God because even though you are where you are, you are still blessed to be alive. Always thank God and God will continue to bless you.
MEO: What Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. God bless you.
AG: Thank you and God bless.
May Olusola is the Publisher of MannaEXPRESS.