The state of Texas incarcerated him for nearly two decades — and nearly executed him twice — for murders he didn't commit. And now, the state is balking at giving him the $1.4 million he's owed for all the years he spent wrongfully imprisoned.
Despite it all, Anthony Graves is remarkably positive. He's just happy to be off death row, and elated to be working to bring hope to his friends who are still there. Last week, Graves sat down with the Tribune at his downtown Austin office at the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit organization that works with death row inmates.
Graves was convicted in 1994 of killing five family members in Somerville before lighting the house ablaze. The other young man convicted in the slayings, Robert Carter (who was executed in 2000), eventually admitted he was the lone killer, but it took another decade before the Burleson County district attorney dropped the charges against Graves and released him from custody. He has been free since October.
Getting used to a world that has changed dramatically since he was a part of it has been surreal and at times scary, Graves said. But he said he's just happy to have the opportunity now to make choices in his life and help others who are in the same situation he faced.
The Tribune interview came a day after Graves' first return visit to death row. This time, he talked with his friends — who are also now his clients — on the free side of the plexiglass, wearing a suit and investigating their cases. For him, it was the fruition of 18 years of death row dreams.
The exonerated 45-year-old talked about life on death row, about the scariness of the free world and the work he said is now his life's mission: abolishing the death penalty.
An edited video of the interview is below. A transcript follows.
TT: How is life after death row?
Graves: It’s been great. I see life a little differently, you know. I know that out here I hear a lot of people complaining about a lot of things, and every time I hear them complaining I think about these guys that are out there on death row. And I say to myself, you know, if you could just wake up one day in these guys’ shoes, you’d realize you don’t have anything to complain about, because whatever it is you are out here complaining about you have a choice. You can change it.
TT: What kind of work are you doing now?
Graves: The job is as a mitigation specialist working on death row cases. … We provide legal assistance to their attorneys, or we’ll take the case ourselves, it depends. What I’m doing is the investigative work on cases. I’m doing the mitigation part, where I go and try to find things in their background that could help get them relief, see if there’s any mental illness or any abuse or anything in their background that we could bring forward to the court. I dedicated my life to helping people who have been wrongfully convicted, and I dedicated my life to educating people about this death penalty. I really think that it’s a threat to our society. And the longer we have it around, the bigger the threat becomes. So what I’m doing now is traveling abroad sharing my story.
TT: How was your visit to death row as a free man?
Graves: People thought that I would have a hard time with it because I was down there for so long. But what people didn’t realize and didn’t know is that … the whole time I was down there I always said when I get out this is what I want to do. I’m going to come back down here and I’m going to be in my suit, and I’m going to let these guys see me and work on somebody’s case. All that came to fruition yesterday, and it was just totally incredible.
TT: Do you believe there are many more innocent death row inmates?
Graves: DNA is showing us that. It would be naïve for us to think just because there’s no DNA in a case those people are all guilty. DNA is showing us that we have a problem with our criminal justice system. And I definitely, definitely, definitely believe that there are many people on death row that are actually innocent. But there are many more that just have really, really bad cases. They shouldn’t have been charged with capital murder, maybe a lesser included offense. But because they didn’t have any really good legal attorneys they ended up getting the death penalty.
TT: What’s a day on death row like?
Graves: It’s hell. It’s hell when you wake up, it’s hell when you have to live throughout the day, and it’s hell when you lay down at night. It’s just total chaos. You wake up at 3 in the morning. You get a breakfast, and they come back around about 5:30 asking are you going to go to recreation. If you decide that you’re going to go, you get up at 6. They dehumanize you by strip searching you and giving you a body cavity search and everything, and then they handcuff you and take you out on the rec yard before the sun even comes up. Then after that they bring you back to your cell and then they give you a few minutes to get ready, and they come back and ask you if you want a shower. And of course you’re going to shower. And they do the same thing, dehumanize you and send you through the whole body cavity search thing and handcuff you and escort you to the shower. After that, you’re fed again around 9:00 a.m., which is lunch. Other than if you have a legal visit or a regular visit or doctor’s appointment that you have to go to, you’re just in your cell for the rest of the day. And that’s a day on death row.
TT: How did you keep your hope alive?
Graves: I did a lot of writing, and I did a lot of reading, and I bought a radio so that I could listen to sports. I’m a big sports fan, especially Astros, Cowboys, Rockets. So I used to listen to sports a lot on the radio. It would just kind of take you out of that place. I wanted to make sure that every day I got up and did something that was going to help me save my life, whether it was to write one letter or ten letters I had to do something that was going to help me save my life. After that, then I could deal with rest of the day.
TT: What was the first thing you did when you were released?
Graves: Everybody was asking where was my mom and did my mom know… They wanted me to call my mom. They handed me a cell phone, and I was like man I don’t know how to use no cell phone. … So, when I got out I talked to my mom on my attorney’s cell phone. That was the first thing I did. I called my mom and asked her what was she cooking, and told her I was on my way home. It was like an out-of-body experience. It was so surreal. I couldn’t even connect with my own emotions for a while. It just all of the sudden started slowly hitting me as I was walking out of the gates: Man this fight is finally over. It’s finally over. And then, the sunshine just hit my face. Freedom.
TT: What are the challenges of finding your way in a much-changed world?
Graves: Even when I was doing the 18 years, I did them all one day at a time. Whatever challenges that I had to take on, I took them on. And it’s the same thing out here. I just do things one day at a time, one step at a time. I pay attention and try to learn as much as I can about technology, new roads, whatever. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s really been scary, and it’s really been weird, because you would think a man at the age of 45 would have this down. But it’s like learning how to walk all over again. It’s exciting, but when you stand up and you try to take that first step, it’s scary. And I’m taking steps now, so I’m kind of getting in my rhythm, I’m starting to get my walk down.
TT: Where do things stand with your compensation from the state?
Graves: As far as I know, they amended a piece of legislation that would allow me to receive the compensation, but that bill is still sitting on Gov. Rick Perry’s desk. It’s been up there since May 25. He hasn’t signed it or anything, so I don’t know. I’m cautiously optimistic, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
TT: What are your long-term goals?
Graves: I see myself doing this here until the death penalty is abolished. That’s it. I want to see the death penalty abolished, because I know first-hand how barbaric it is. I had two execution dates. The state was going to murder me for something I didn’t do. I would be naïve to think that I was the only one down there like that. If we’re killing someone who’s innocent then the death penalty is not working.