This piece by EJS President Eva Paterson was originally published Dec. 6 on The Huffington Post.
Anthony Graves, father of three and an African American man with no violent past, was on death row in Texas for more than a decade despite his innocence before being exonerated. Now, Anthony spends his time speaking out about the injustice of the death penalty. He is headlining a panel hosted by the Equal Justice Society on December 7, exploring how we can understand the death penalty in the context of modern-day racism in America. The panel also highlights the need to develop a cohesive legal strategy to reclaim the 14th Amendment as a tool to combat modern-day racism. We talked with Anthony about his long fight for freedom and his work to replace the death penalty with life without parole to eliminate the grave risk of executing innocent people.
Give us a brief background on your case.
In 1992, there was a crime in a little small town known as Somerville, Texas. There were six victims; four of them were children, one was a teenager, and one was a grandmother. They were shot, stabbed and bludgeoned to death, and then the house was set on fire. The guy that was thought to be a person of interest in the case was the father of one of the children. The police interrogated this man for hours, and then they told him that if he gave them someone’s name, they would let him go. He called out my name, not thinking that they were going to arrest me, because he was giving them a wild story. Well, I was arrested and I ended up on death row for 18 years for a crime I did not commit. Even after my case was overturned by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for egregious prosecutorial misconduct, I ended up staying at the local county jail for four more years, in isolation, because they refused to admit they made a mistake. Several prosecutors were assigned by the county to retry my case, and for one reason or another they got off the case. The last prosecutor, Kelly Siegler, was known as a tough-as-nails prosecutor because she had already put 19 men on death row. She came in and, for the first time in 18 years, my case was investigated. What she found out was very shocking to her, and she called it the criminal justice system’s worst nightmare. She went to the judge and asked the judge to sign the dismissal order because I was innocent.
What kept you fighting for 18 years? What kept you from giving up?
Living on death row was hell, because you had no control over your life. You had absolutely no say so about what you could do throughout the day. Your life was controlled by guards, 18- or 19-year-old guards fresh out of high school, who had the right to disrespect you and treat you as less than the man that you were. And you had conditions that were so inhumane that guys were giving up their appeals, committing suicide, attempting to commit suicide or going totally insane. That still is going on today on Texas Death Row. What kept me strong was that I knew I was innocent. I was naïve enough to believe that you just can’t take a man from his home for a crime that took place in another town that he wasn’t even in, falsely convict him, and then murder him. I refused to believe we had a criminal justice system like that even though I was there long enough to witness Texas executing more than 300 men. But, because I didn’t want to give up, I allowed my naiveté to keep me strong. In the meantime, they gave me two execution dates – which makes it clear to me that Texas is executing innocent people. How do I know? They tried to execute me twice for a crime I did not commit.
Three hundred people executed over 12 and half years?
Texas was breaking execution records set by Texas. They were competing with themselves to break their own records. We would be naïve to believe they never got it wrong. I used to cry about it a lot at night, and I promised myself that when I got out of prison, not only was I going to work to help the guys I left behind, I was also going to tell the rest of the world what was happening on death row. I hope and pray that I am effective enough and clear enough about how the death penalty is totally inhumane, and how inhumane it makes us look. We are the only nation, the only democratic nation, acting like a third world country when it comes to our criminal justice system. We are supposed to be the nation that leads the world. Yet, we have created a system that threatens the life of innocent people. As of today, 139 people have been exonerated from death in the United States. And, yet, we are still killing. How many did we get wrong?
Would you still call yourself “naïve” about how justice in America is carried out?
I am no longer naïve. Our criminal justice system needs to be reformed. I say to the American people, where is the outrage? It could be your son or your daughter or your father or your mother next. Do not think it can’t happen to you, because it happened to me. We have a death penalty system that is killing innocent people, not just in the state of Texas but also in other states that have the death penalty. Anyone — anyone — would be naïve to believe otherwise. It is sad to me that there is no real outrage about it, not just from people on the street but from those we vote in to office to protect and serve us.
How is life now that you are free?
I am trying to rebuild it. It is so different from the life I had before. I am on a mission to alert the American people that our criminal justice system has turned against us. They are killing us for crimes we did not commit. We need to wake up and say: No, this is not the system that we want. Now, I spend every moment of my life traveling and educating people about the injustice of the death penalty and telling people what happened to me. Sharing my story, sharing my insight. I work for a nonprofit organization that represents people on death row, and I also travel around the world to educate people. I go anywhere to talk to anyone who is willing to hear my story. My life is totally dedicated to exposing the injustice of the death penalty. The guys I left behind, some of them are innocent, some of them are mentally ill, and Texas still wants to murder them for a crime they may or may not have committed. Don’t believe me? Ask the 139 others who have walked off death row in the United States. Ask their families and their mothers. I could be doing a lot of other things with my life. Texas compensated me for this wrongful conviction. But I am here talking about the death penalty and how wrong it is simply because I know it’s true. And I just can’t stand by without telling people what I know.
Do you think the death penalty should be replaced with life without parole?
One innocent life is one too many to waste, so therefore we should not be tinkering with the death penalty. America needs to know that we are wasting a lot of money murdering precious life. We have a system that has run amok, and we are all in the way. We are spending more money to execute one person than we are to keep that person in prison for the rest of his or her life.
Thank you for sharing your story with us. What compels you to keep telling it?
I feel like if I stop, someone else is going to be murdered who is probably innocent. Knowing that, I have to keep telling my story until I can ensure that no one innocent can be executed. That drives me to tell my story, when- and wherever I can.
How can people help?
Whoever has whatever platform out there, allow me a few minutes of your time to get on your platform and share my story. It will be a tremendous help to righting this injustice. Please also consider supporting the nonprofit where I work, the Texas Defender Service.