Students help free Death Row inmate

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An eight-year effort by students from the University of Houston Law Center and the University of St. Thomas helped free an innocent man from Death Row when prosecutors dropped all charges after agreeing there was no credible evidence of his guilt. “This is one of those rare non-DNA exonerations that is won through sheer determination,” said Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson, head of the Criminal Justice Institute at the Law Center, “a truly impressive feat!”

Anthony Graves, convicted in 1992 of capital murder in the slayings of six people in Somerville, TX., was released after 18 years as he awaited a new trial based on evidence gathered by the students and their professors.

David Dow“It’s very rare,” Law Center Professor David Dow said of the decision based on non-DNA evidence. There have been about 300 DNA exonerations nationwide, he said, and the number of non-DNA cases is tiny. “You may not be able to count them on one hand, “ he said, “but you don’t need two.”

Graves had proclaimed his innocence since his arrest and his co-defendant insisted Graves was not guilty even from the gurney as he was about to be executed. The case first came to the attention of Dow and the Texas Innocence Network for which he is the litigation director. He referred the case to Nicole Cásarez, a communications professor at the University of St. Thomas, who started looking into it with her journalism students in 2002. They found a startling lack of investigation and physical evidence, virtually no evidence or motive linking Graves to the crime and instances of prosecutors withholding evidence from the defense.

Nicole Cásarez“In too many of these cases of wrongful conviction, we’ve seen serious prosecutorial and police misconduct in the form of suborning perjury, threatening witnesses, and hiding exculpatory evidence from the defense,” said Thompson who recently hosted Casarez in a discussion of the case at the Law Center. “Unfortunately, once a decision is made to try to convict a certain suspect, there are some people in law enforcement who obviously must think that the ends justify the means, even if the means are illegal.  But if you have to lie and cheat to get a conviction, that should be a strong sign that the case against the defendant stinks.”

Cásarez could not be reached for comment, but Dow said she was the first person to tell Graves that he was a free man. When they hugged at the news, Dow said, it was probably the first time the inmate had touched another human being in 18 years.

“I think the way it ended so quickly, it was a bit of a surprise to everybody,” Dow said, including those preparing for Graves’ retrial in February. “You don’t want to get your expectations up,” Thompson said, “but it was pretty clear that there wasn’t enough of a case to go forward.”

(See previous story, “Professor outlines textbook case of justice gone awry)

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