When Anthony Graves was arrested for capital murder, he thought it was a practical joke. A surveillance camera in the Brenham, Texas, police station captured Graves shaking his head and smiling. “This is a big mistake,” he said. “Somebody’s messing with me, right?”
It was a mistake, but it wasn’t a joke. Graves, then twenty-six, didn’t know he was about to begin an eighteen-year fight to clear his name of a gruesome crime he did not commit. He would spend most of those years in solitary confinement on death row.
Graves was charged with the brutal murder of six members of the Davis family in Somerville, a small city northwest of Houston. Robert Carter, the absent father of the youngest victim, four-year-old Jason Davis, became the first suspect when he showed up to the family’s funeral with burns on his face and a shaky alibi. But from the investigation’s outset, the police worked from the assumption that Carter couldn’t have committed the horrific murders alone, because multiple weapons had been employed: the victims were attacked with a knife, a hammer, and a gun before the house was set on fire.
When his interrogators pressured him to name an accomplice, Carter, to deflect attention from his wife, also a suspect at the time, offered the name of someone he barely knew: his wife’s cousin, Anthony Graves. Though there was no evidence connecting him to the crimes other than Carter’s accusation, Graves was convicted and sentenced to death.
Carter was executed in May 2000. His last statement from the gurney was a declaration that Graves was innocent. “It was me and me alone…. I lied on him in court,” Carter said, just minutes before being dosed with a lethal injection. Graves remained on death row, his case unexamined.
Graves gained a powerful ally in 2002, when Nicole Cásarez, a journalism professor at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, began investigating his case with her students as part of an Innocence Network project. Alarmed by the lack of evidence in Graves’s case files, they interviewed at least one hundred people connected to the case over the next few years. What they found was a range of witnesses intimidated by the prosecution not to testify on Graves’s behalf, and a systematic pattern of lost or blatantly manufactured evidence.
The breakthrough came when Cásarez’s team discovered a recording of prosecutor Charles Sebesta admitting offhandedly—in a television documentary hosted by Geraldo Rivera, no less—that Carter had suddenly offered a different story the night before taking the stand in Graves’s trial, saying that he had acted alone. The team was able to get a judge to declare a mistrial because Sebesta had failed to reveal Carter’s contradictory statement to the defense, as the law requires. In 2006, Graves walked off of death row and back into county jail, but he still had to wait for another trial: the capital murder charges remained. At that point, feeling an “ethical obligation to right an injustice,” Cásarez officially joined Graves’s defense team. She was no longer an objective journalist; she was now his advocate. She spent the next several years gathering more evidence and trying to attract media attention to the case.
The Houston Chronicle and other papers wrote periodic updates on Graves’s case through the years, but it took a Texas Monthly senior editor, Pamela Colloff, to do justice to Graves’s story. Colloff began speaking with Cásarez in the spring of 2010, and for months, Cásarez made thousands of pages of court documents—and Graves himself—available to Colloff as she worked to wrangle the convoluted record into a coherent narrative. The story that came out of that work, in the October 2010 issue, “Innocence Lost,” is a gripping, utterly unsentimental, can’t-put-it-down read, with the detail and depth that months of research and weeks of writing allowed.
“In a time when we’re all supposed to be tweeting and blogging, I’m so grateful that I work at a place that, when a narrative merits it, will allow 14,000 words for a story,” Colloff said of Texas Monthly. “Because you could not tell this story and really, truly have people understand the injustice that happened here in much less space than that.” Colloff said she is also grateful for her fact-checker, associate editor David Moorman, who hadn’t “slept for a month.”
The Texas Monthly editors knew the special prosecutor who had been hired that year to retry Graves, Kelly Siegler, would be forced to acknowledge the evidence the magazine story laid out. But neither Colloff nor Cásarez expected what happened next: in less than a month, Siegler and District Attorney Bill Parham announced that the case was dismissed. Graves was a free man.
One of Graves’s defense attorneys, Katherine Scardino, said that while the article alone would be unlikely to persuade Siegler to dismiss the case, “it might have given her some substance to begin a very detailed, professional, competent, efficient investigation.”
This LAUREL goes to Nicole Cásarez, who investigated this story over eight years, and to Pamela Colloff, who deftly translated the facts into a compelling narrative for a wider audience. In a press conference after Graves’s release, a reporter asked Graves, now forty-five, what he wanted to say to the world. He thought for a minute, and then said, “Never give up. Stand for what you believe in, and try to make change. Because in the end, it helps us all.”Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner