Professor outlines textbook case of justice gone awry

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Update: The prosecution dropped all charges against Anthony Graves and released him Oct. 27 after 18 years in prison.

The case of convicted murderer Anthony Graves exemplifies why prosecutorial misconduct is the number one cause of wrongful murder convictions, according to an attorney and journalism professor who helped win a new trial for the Death Row inmate. Nicole Cásarez, a University of St. Thomas professor, and her students began looking into Graves’ case in 2002. “I never thought it would take up this much of my life,” she told Law Center students in a discussion hosted by the Criminal Justice Institute. Graves was convicted in the 1992 killing of six people in Somerville, TX. and sentenced to death. He was convicted without physical evidence and despite the fact that the only witness linking him to the crime recanted his statement before his own trial in the case and proclaimed Graves’ innocence even from the gurney in the death chamber.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found “egregious” prosecutorial misconduct and ordered a new trial in 2006 based on evidence gathered by Cásarez and her students, Law Center Prof. David Dow and the Texas Innocence Network and others. Graves is awaiting retrial in the Spring 2011.

Cásarez began her discussion by noting that sometimes parents or teachers will discipline a child even without solid evidence just because “someone must be punished.” Investigators and prosecutors, she said, needed to find someone else to punish because they didn’t believe Graves’ fellow defendant, Robert Carter, had acted alone. She said they were pursuing a conviction, not justice. “I believe he was blamed for something he didn’t do,” she said. “We’re trying to get the state to admit it made a mistake and set it right.”

Cásarez cited a number of problems, including:

  • “Shoddy” investigation by Texas Rangers who focused on Graves and didn’t look for evidence that might have exonerated him as well as ignoring numerous contradictions in Carter’s story.
  • Testimony: Prosecutors knew Carter had perjured himself on the stand concerning his wife’s whereabouts during the murders, yet didn’t inform the defense. The district attorney later admitted Carter told him he had lied about Graves’ involvement, but he didn’t notify the defense.
  • Evidence: “Expert” witness testified that a knife similar to the murder weapon had been given to Graves by his boss. The “similar” knife was tested by inserting it into stab wounds in the victim’s skull where it “fit like a glove.” Other forensic experts later testified that such testing was unscientific and may have actually altered the wound evidence.
  • Racism: Investigators discounted African-American alibi witnesses as to his whereabouts because as one said, “They all lie for each other.” Victims and defendants were African-American.
  • Witness intimidation: Graves’ girlfriend fled after prosecutor advised her at trial that she might become a suspect if she testified. .
  • Motive: Retaliation for his mother being passed over for a promotion years earlier in favor of one of the victims. But, she had never applied for the job
  • Confession: Jailers and other inmates reportedly heard Graves confessing to the murders after his arrest. But the non-air conditioned jail was cooled by a roaring fan with a TV on extra loud to be heard over the fan. The intercom system which guards monitored from a separate building was frequently faulty and several of the witnesses admitted they had never heard Graves’ voice before.

Cásarez, a member of Graves’ defense team for his retrial, concedes it will be a battle despite the lack of credible evidence. The judge, she notes, is the daughter of the original trial judge and set a bond of $1 million, lowered to $600,000, which is why Graves is still in jail. Cásarez is also concerned because testimony from the first trial will be admissible in the retrial.

“We’re looking at another appeal and perhaps 10 more years in jail,” she says with a sigh. “I know he feels a lot of anger and frustration, but I haven’t heard a lot of that from him. He’s got a remarkably good attitude.”

Thompson-Casarez AnthonyGraves
Law Center Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson, left, discusses a death row case with St. Thomas University journalism Professor Nicole Cásarez who helped win a new trial for the inmate, Anthony Graves. Anthony Graves awaits a new trial set for Spring 2011

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