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The state of Texas has seen 13 death-row prisoners exonerated since 1976, the year capital punishment resumed after a four-year pause instituted by the United States Supreme Court.
The 12th of those exonerated prisoners, Anthony Graves, will visit the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) Concert Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 12, for a free public lecture about his experiences of wrongful conviction, imprisonment, and eventual freedom.
“Anthony is a remarkably well put-together man,” said Roger Barnes, professor of sociology and chair of the UIW Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. Graves spent 18 years in prison as an innocent man, 12 of them on death row, where he experienced solitary confinement, despair, and depression.
“How do you survive an ordeal like that?” Barnes asked rhetorically. “It’s just a tremendous story.”
Graves not only survived his nearly two-decades-long ordeal, but surpassed it by becoming an advocate for criminal justice system reform and an author. His new memoir, Infinite Hope: How Wrongful Conviction, Solitary Confinement, and 12 Years on Death Row Failed to Kill My Soul, details his life story from his 1992 arrest through his exoneration in 2010.
He is now listed as one of the most notorious cases of innocents on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) website.
Being released after his 6,640-day odyssey was an “out-of-body experience,” Graves said Monday in a phone interview from his home in Houston. He and advocates on his behalf had worked toward his release for years, suffering major setbacks and small successes, “then just like that, they gave me my freedom. I was not prepared for it … so much had changed in the world.”
For the first few days, “It was like walking in slow motion,” he said. “It was surreal, but it was definitely something I was ready to embrace.” He now says that the experience was his greatest challenge and that all other obstacles could be overcome.
What he knew from Day One in prison, he said, was that he “would come out here and advocate for a better criminal justice system, so there would be no more Anthony Graves,'” he said.
“I want the world to know we could do better,” he said. “Our criminal justice system has now become the biggest criminal in our country, and it’s time we address that issue.”
Bettering the System
At one point in 2000, just as two court-appointed attorneys were assigned to his ongoing case, an execution date was set for Graves. He was granted a stay for 10 days, during which, as he writes in Infinite Hope, “the proverbial gun was held directly to my head, but it didn’t feel like a proverb. It was very real, and sickening … all I could hear was a voice saying, Anthony Graves, you have a date with death in Texas.”
When evidence exonerating Graves mounted and he was finally freed, Graves' prosecuting attorney was found guilty of “numerous acts of prosecutorial misconduct,” having manufactured evidence, misled jurors, and elicited false testimony.
Not only did the false prosecution had grave consequences for an innocent man, it represented “a criminal justice system’s nightmare,” according to the Houston Chronicle.
In summarizing his case, Graves said, “you had a District Attorney who knew he had an innocent person and was still trying to kill him.”
The issue goes far deeper, to an entire system that could allow such potentially fatal misconduct, he said. Since his release, Graves has established the Anthony Graves Foundation to work for the betterment of the criminal justice system, worked with the American Civil Liberties Union Campaign for Smart Justice, served on the board of directors of the Houston Forensic Science Center, and has testified to the U.S. Senate on the harms of solitary confinement, which he endured for 16 of his more than 18 years in prison.
“I think he can provide testimony to how, under the grimmest of circumstances, the human soul can still find a way to keep that hope alive,” Barnes said.
By bringing in Graves as part of its UIW Distinguished Speakers Series, sponsored by the UIW College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Barnes continues his lifelong advocacy for abolishing the death penalty.
He pointed out that the recent Texas death row exonerations are only 13 of 162 nationally since the 1970s. That number of false convictions, alongside 1,481 executions during that period, equals a failure rate of nearly 10 percent, which Barnes pointed out would be entirely unacceptable among other industries.
“I don’t think we’d tolerate it if every nine flights took off from the San Antonio airport and one went horribly bad,” he said, or if one of every 10 patients of pharmacists died. “Yet that’s exactly what our death penalty system does.”
Before leaving office in 2003, Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of all 167 prisoners on death row in his state.
Prior to being elected governor, Ryan had been a professional pharmacist, Barnes said. Ryan told him after making the commutations that in his former profession, he was not allowed to make any mistakes at all and that he simply could not abide the number of exonerations relative to executions.
“I wish we had more politicians in Texas that had that kind of courage,” Barnes said.
Death of the Death Penalty
A recent Dallas Morning News commentary asserts that the death penalty itself might be dying. DPIC statistics and Barnes both agree.
Prosecutors tend to seek the death penalty less often, and juries return death sentences less frequently, Barnes said. “I think both those things are suggesting that people are starting to think we can live without the death penalty. We don't need it,” he said.
The DPIC Fact Sheet reports that death sentences have decreased dramatically from a total of 295 in 1998 to 31 in 2016, and 39 last year. (This statistic, and those cited above, are available in downloadable PDF format on the DPIC website.)
The state of Texas maintains by far the highest number and rate of executions among all U.S. states, but Barnes hopes that could change.
The combination of information, awareness, new scientific methods for gathering and analyzing evidence, alternative sentencing to life without parole, and shifts in attitude, all have accounted for the decline, Barnes said. Eventually, the death penalty might disappear altogether, he said.
That’s why UIW is bringing Graves in to speak, Barnes said, “to keep the conversation going, to keep the topic on the front page and in people’s minds as best we can, to give them something to think about.”
The Distinguished Speaker Series event begins at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 12, and is free and open to the public. Barnes advises that people should arrive early if driving because parking can be an issue around the UIW campus.