By Alan Bean
Anthony Graves is back in the free world after eighteen years of hell.
Charles Sebesta, the prosecutor who sent Graves to death row, still thinks he nailed the right man. If you asked the Texas Rangers who conducted the “investigation” they would probably agree with Sebesta.
According to the state’s theory of the crime, Graves teamed up with Robert Earl Carter to brutally murder Bobbie Davis, 45; her 16-year-old daughter, Nicole; and four of Davis’ grandchildren in August of 1992. The victims died from hammer blows, repeated stabbings, and bullet wounds. Their house was then torched in a clumsy attempt to conceal evidence. It was the most brutal crime in the history of Burleson County.
The trial got a lot of regional press but, as is generally the case, it was largely ignored by the outside world. Fortunately, this tragic saga has been lovingly and accurately chronicled by Pamela Colloff in a gripping eight-page feature story in the Texas Monthly.
Robert Carter was an obvious suspect from the beginning. He had a one year-old child with Bobbie Davis and his face and hands were covered with burn marks the day after the crime. Interrogated by several Texas Rangers, Carter was told that he would get a sweet deal if he would implicate his partner in crime. (Prosecutors and investigators have cart blanche to lie to suspects.) No one believed that a single person could dispatch six people without assistance. Carter named the first person that came into his head and cobbled together a rambling and incoherent story implicating Anthony Graves, a man Carter hardly knew, as the primary assailant.
Satisfied they had the real killers, the Rangers turned the case over to Sebesta. The DA had been told that local residents were eager to see the two suspects convicted and sentenced to death–otherwise, there was talk that folks might bring back lynch law.
Under intense pressure to produce results, Sebesta lined up a string of witnesses. A woman at a local store said she saw a tall, black, clean-shaven man with an oblong face buying gas the night of the crime. After being hypnotized, she picked Graves out of a lineup even though he is five foot seven, wears a mustache and has a round face. Sebesta then produced a couple of prison guards who said they heard Graves admit his participation in the crime. An inmate later stepped forward with the same testimony.
Graves had a number of alibi witnesses. Everyone expected his brother to take his side, so that didn’t help much. A female witnesses refused to testify after Sebesta threatened to indict her as a co-conspirator, and a white neighbor also declined to take the stand at the last minute.
Graves’ white employer put up $10,000 to hire big-name Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin for a pre-trail hearing. Called as a witness, the man admitted on the witness stand that he had once given Graves (a close personal friend) a cheap switchblade. Unfortunately the man had also purchased an identical weapon for himself. Although the knife used in the murders was never discovered, a forensic “expert” testified that he had seen the boss’s blade inserted into some of the wounds and “it fit like a glove”.
Finally, a rattled Graves “failed” a polygraph. Since polygraphs test stress-related physiological reactions, this is not particularly surprising, but it settled the issue for Sebesta.
Hardly anyone in Anthony Graves’ social world was ever investigated. When Dick DeGuerin withdrew from the case because the family couldn’t meet his price, an inexperienced attorney represented Graves at trial.
The night before trial, Robert Carter informed DA Sebesta that he had lied about Graves’ involvement and could not testify against him. Sebesta replied coldly that if Carter didn’t testify his girlfriend would be charged as an accomplice. Carter recanted his recantation.
After a quick two-hour deliberation, Graves was convicted and later sentenced to die by lethal injection. The conviction was appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, a body with a 3% reversal rate in capital cases–the lowest in the nation.
Next, another inexperienced defense attorney took the case and got Robert Carter to sign an affidavit vindicating Graves. Unfortunately, prior permission had not been obtained from Carter’s attorney or the DA’s office. The affidavit was useless.
Robert Carter was executed in 2000.
In 2003, after Sebesta admitted to Giraldo Rivera that Carter had proclaimed Graves’ innocence on the eve of trial, a Brady motion was filed claiming that Sebesta had failed to disclose Carter’s pre-trial confession to defense counsel. Sebesta acknowledged that Carter had made the statement exonerating Graves, but had felt no obligation to report the conversation to defense counsel because his witness had quickly returned to his original story. US Magistrate Judge John Froeschner ruled that a Brady violation had been committed, but refused to give Graves a new trial because, in his opinion, jurors would have found Graves guilty even if they knew about Carter’s conversation with the prosecutor. The violation was dismissed as innocent error.
A year later, US District Judge Samuel Kent upheld Froeschner’s ruling.
Then the trajectory of the case took an upswing. In 2005, a Houston-based innocence project picked up Graves’ case and appealed these rulings to a higher court.
In 2006, a three-member panel of the US 5th Circuit Court reversed this ruling, raking judges Froeshchner and Kent over the coals in the process.
The news that the 5th Circuit Court had granted Anthony Graves a new trial raised hardly a ripple of media interest. Sebesta remained convinced that Graves was guilty and the family of the victims, not surprisingly, shared this view.
Patrick Batchelor (the man who sent Cameron Todd Willingham to his death) was named as special prosecutor. Batchelor shared Sebesta’s view of the case and announced that he would be seeking the death penalty.
In a major setback for the defense, the judge assigned to try the case ruled that Robert Carter’s trial testimony could be read into the record. No one was sure if Carter’s numerous recantations, the most dramatic of which was made from his death gurney, would be admissible.
Fortunately, Batchelor was forced to step aside because of poor health and was replaced by Kelly Siegler, a hard-charging Harris County prosecutor with a flair for the dramatic. Siegler examined the “evidence” against Graves and realized she had nothing to take to trial.
But it went deeper than that. The the more potential witnesses she interviewed, the more Siegler became convinced of Graves’ actual innocence. Mercifully, current Burleson-Washington County DA Bill Parham agreed.
This week, four long years after being granted a new trial, Anthony Graves was finally reunited with his family. The story from the Houston Chronicle is worthy of your attention, but please take a look at Pamela Colloff’s wonderful account in the Texas Monthly. This kind of investigative reporting is scarce in this day of media cutbacks and belt-tightening. Even Colloff didn’t write until Graves’ exoneration was a done deal.
I’m not complaining–most of these stories never get the in-depth coverage they deserve. This gives the impression that the system is self-correcting. It isn’t. If Robert Carter had carried his lies to the grave, the state of Texas would have executed Anthony Graves. Moreover, apart from the heroic efforts of pro bono attorneys associated with innocence projects (a relatively new phenomenon) the truth would never have prevailed.
This travesty can’t be pinned on a single bad-apple prosecutor. The Texas Rangers, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and two US District Judges are equally complicit. This isn’t a Texas story; this kind of thing is happening all across the country.
The similarities between the Graves saga and the case of Curtis Flowers is hard to miss. The Jace Washington and Kelvin Kaigler cases also spring to mind. And those are just the horror stories Friends of Justice is investigating. All over the nation, especially in the South, innocent men like Anthony Graves are pacing their cells with little hope of relief. The system isn’t just sloppy, it’s broken. While we rejoice with the fortunate few who can prove their innocence beyond a reasonable doubt, we grieve with the families of folks like Curtis, Jace and Kelvin who have been victimized by investigative tunnel vision and an ungodly rush to judgment.