On the night of August 18th, 1992, a grandmother, her daughter and her four grandchildren were shot, stabbed and bludgeoned to death in their home in Somerville, Texas. The 6 bodies were discovered when firefighters responded to a house fire. The killer had set the home ablaze.
The aftermath of this crime will serve as the first in an ongoing series telling the stories of wrongful convictions in North America. If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Punishment and Reasonable Doubt.
A few days after the fire, a funeral was held for the 6 deceased family members, and when the father of the youngest victim, a four-year-old boy, arrived, investigators immediately took an interest. Robert Carter, a corrections officer, was covered in bruises, lacerations, burns and bandages. He was immediately brought in for questioning.
Carter’s story about how he’d gotten his injuries was a mess. Investigators saw through it. When he failed a polygraph, Carter knew he had little choice but to confess. He admitted to committing the murders and pointed the finger at Anthony Graves as his partner in crime. When the two appeared before a grand jury, Carter changed his testimony, saying that Graves had not been present during the murder. They were both still indicted for murder.
Carter’s story of what happened that night changed several more times leading up to Graves’ trial. Some stories implicated Carter’s wife in the killings, others included an unknown man named ‘Red’ from a neighbouring town. In some, Graves was the sole killer, in others, Carter acted alone. Carter was swiftly convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. At this point, all eyes turned to Anthony Graves.
The only evidence the prosecution had against Graves was the testimony of Robert Carter and so began months of moulding and shaping his story to get a conviction. At Graves’ trial, the fact that Carter’s story had changed so many times and had at several points been that he had acted alone, was withheld. When Carter testified against Graves, state prosecutor, Charles Sebesta, allowed the changed testimony and at no point did he correct his witness, reminding him that he had assured a grand jury previously that Graves had not been present during the murders. The only version of the story the jury heard, was that Carter and Graves had committed the murders together. Further, when an alibi for Graves came forward, Sebesta knowingly lied to the court saying the alibi’s testimony should not be heard because she was a suspect in the murders herself. This had never been the case and by the time the court Judge pointed this out, the alibi witness had been scared enough by Sebesta’s statement, that she refused to testify on Graves’ behalf. Graves was convicted and sentenced to death.
On death row, Anthony Graves was kept in solitary confinement. He spent 16 years locked in an 8×12 cell with a cold, steel bed and toilet and sink. He says,
Whatever you think hell is, that’s what solitary confinement is—365 days a year, 24 hours a day. It’s a system that seems designed to break a man’s will to live.
Solitary confinement plays tricks on your mind. You’re bound by four walls, you’re cut off from society, and you’re left with just your own thoughts. Sometimes you start to feel like, if they treat me like this, I’m going to act like this. And then you risk becoming the kind of person that it seems like they’re trying to tell society that you are.
He was allowed out in shackles for an hour a day of recreation on his own. He was given the bare minimum to keep him alive, rarely eating past 3pm each day. He spent 16 years like this. Sixteen years.
During this time, execution dates for Graves were set twice. Six months before his co-defendant, Robert Carter, was set to be executed, Carter wanted to give another statement about the crime. He admitted to committing the crimes alone again and maintained that Graves was innocent for the rest of his life. In 2000, he was executed by lethal injection and moments prior to his death, he reiterated that he had worked alone and that Graves was innocent.For the next 6 years, Graves fought for his innocence with the help of the Innocence Network. In 2006, the court saw that the original prosecutor in Graves’ case had withheld exculpatory evidence, and knowingly allowed false testimony. The court finally overturned Graves’ conviction and set a new trial. While the new prosecutor assigned to the case reviewed court transcripts and proceedings, he began to realize that there was no evidence against Graves at all. Convinced Graves was innocent, the prosecutor assured the courts that making any case against Graves would be impossible and in 2010, Graves was finally exonerated.
Since that time, Graves has struggled with the transition from solitary confinement to being free, but he has done so with grace. It took him very little time before he launched his own foundation in support of the children and families affected by the criminal justice system. He has become an outspoken activist against both the death penalty and solitary confinement and has used his $1.4 million dollar settlement with the State of Texas to do nothing but good.
In 2016, the original prosecuting attorney in Graves’ case, Charles Sebesta, was disbarred for failing to provide exculpatory evidence and allowing false testimony.
Anthony Graves came within weeks of being executed with nothing but recanted testimony to link him to this heinous crime. He feels lucky to be alive and sees it as his duty to raise awareness for wrongful convictions. A goal that has been frustrating to accomplish. In his own words,
What has to happen is someone famous, someone that they admire, has to be falsely accused or has to be convicted, to where they say, ‘Oh my God, this has become an epidemic,’ because now they can relate.
Wrongful convictions has become an epidemic, and Graves is lucky to be alive. Others have not been so lucky.
It has been found that on any given day in the USA, 80,000 men and women are being held in solitary. African Americans are so disproportionately represented in the hole that it can only be described as perverse and systematic racism. Many of these solitary inmates spend upwards of 20 years in the hole. Recently, it was reported that Albert Woodfox, one of the Angola 3, spent 43 years locked up in solitary. Forty-three years.
Anthony Graves has written a book about his ordeal and the aftermath, which you can pick up here: Infinite Hope by Anthony Graves
See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Punishment and Reasonable Doubt. If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at email@example.com
- The Anthony Graves Foundation
- I Spent 16 Years in Solitary Confinement Hell. It Needs to End.
- Death Penalty Information Center
- The Innocence Network
- Solitary Watch
- Entombed: Life in the USA’s Cruel Isolation Chambers
- Angola 3
Image: Screenshot via YouTube