Every week for 18 years, Anthony Graves was allowed to make one phone call from prison. And each call would be to his mother.
What was she making for dinner, he would ask. The food that they served in prison was mush compared to the meals his mother used to make for him. Each week his mother would say the same thing: why would he want to torture himself with memories of her home cooking when he could have none of it?
“Steak and potatoes she would say, and I would go ‘ah, Mom,’ why would you tell me that?” Graves said.
And then one day, he called his mom, just as he had done every week for 18 years, to ask her what she was making for dinner. And once again, she asked him why in the world he would want to know.
“Because I’m coming home,” he told her. “Your son is coming home.”
Graves was wrongly convicted of a horrific multiple homicide in 1994. His conviction was overturned in 2006, and he was fully exonerated in 2010. He is the 12th and most recent death row inmate to be cleared in Texas since 1973. Only a small fraction of the hundreds of men that have sat on death row have been exonerated.
Texas is infamous for putting the most men to death since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Since then, 478 men have been put to death, with two more scheduled for the end of February, and at least four more by the end of the year. Donald Newbury, a member of the Texas 7 Gang, infamous for the biggest jailbreak in Texas history and the shooting death of a police officer, was to be executed on Feb. 1. He has been given a stay of execution while the Supreme Court determines if death row inmates are entitled to better legal representation during appeals cases.
Southern Methodist University recently hosted two panel discussions on the death penalty. One of them featured Graves, another exoneree, Clarence Brandley, and former Death Row Chaplain Rev. Carroll Pickett.
Pickett, who is now retired, took care of the death row inmates during the day of their execution, sitting with them and preparing them for their impeding death.
“Most inmates just wanted to know what was going to happen to them; what it was going to be like to die,” Pickett said.
While Pickett never counseled Graves, he prepared and walked 95 other men to their deaths during his 15 years with the prison system, more than any other death row chaplain.
Thirty-six states currently impose the death penalty.
“It must not be cruel and unusual because look at how many people want it, 36 states keep imposing it,” said Randy Johnston, a Dallas attorney who specializes in legal ethics.
Graves was released from death row a little over a year ago, on Oct. 27, 2010. Since his release, he has worked hard to rebuild his life, adjusting to living outside bars, and establishing a new relationship with his family.
In 1992, six people, four of whom were children, were shot, stabbed and bludgeoned to death before their house was set on fire to cover up the killings. The small community of Somerville, Texas was shocked and outraged.
“The mayor (of Somerville) said he didn’t even want to hold a trial, there was no need. He just wanted the criminals to hang,” Graves said.
A man wandering in the crowd at the memorial service for the victims was noticed by police. He had bandages over his hands, arms and face to cover burns.
The man, Robert Earl Carter, father to one of the young children killed, was immediately arrested and charged with six counts of homicide. Police allegedly said that if Carter gave up his accomplices, they would let him go. Carter gave the first name that came to his mind.
Within hours, Anthony Graves was arrested.
“I heard the police were looking for me. So I went looking for the police,” Graves said. “Don’t ever go looking for the police; it took me 18 years to get home.”
Graves, now 45-years-old, was 26 when he was arrested. He was a father of three young children. But in the time Graves was away, they have grown up to have children of their own.
After being convicted by a jury of 11 white men and women and 1 black man, Graves was sentenced to death, despite the pleas of his family, including one of his young son’s who was suffering from Spinal Bifida.
With two execution dates set during his time on death row, Graves came within two months of a lethal injection.
He saw a number of fellow prisoners executed during his time on death row. Each time his own impending death came closer, Graves said all he wanted was for people to just look at the facts.
“When you know you’re innocent, in the back of your mind, you hold out hope,” Graves said.
An appeals court overturned his conviction in 2006, following an admission from the original lead prosecutor that Robert Earl Carter had admitted to committing the murders by himself. On Oct. 27, 2010, Graves was released from prison.
“For the first time, I felt the sunshine, the feeling of freedom on my face,” he said.
“Anthony Graves has spent as much time on death row as the average first year student at SMU has been alive,” said Steve Halperin, SMU Professor of the Practice of Human Rights, in a recent interview from his office.
Halperin, surrounded by books, papers, awards and posters with slogans promoting human rights, is also the Director of SMU’s Human Rights Education Program, which sponsored the panels. He said that despite the amount of time Graves spent in prison, he received little compensation and no way to ever get that time back.
Graves now works for a non-profit organization, The Texas Defender Service in Austin, which works with death row inmates. He also travels extensively to provide assistance to lawyers and speaks on panels to students and people on the impact the death penalty not only had on his life, but also that of his family’s.
“My whole family was on death row,” Graves said.
Despite all that has happened to him, Graves says that he does not hold onto any anger.
“I didn’t want the anger or animosity to take away any more of my life,” he said.
While Graves is rebuilding his life, and adjusting to the changes of the world over the past 18 years, he has worked hard to tell his story, inspire others and hopefully change the mind of pro-death penalty supporters along the way.
“The question isn’t that they shouldn’t be punished, but what exactly should the punishment be,” Halperin said.