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The Houston Forensic Science Center board of directors has eight members who are judges, cops and lawyers. But none has spent more time getting an education in the criminal justice system than the ninth and newest member, Anthony Graves.
His degree came from what he describes as “D.R.U.” – “Death Row University.”
Graves served 18 years in a Texas prison, 12 of them on death row, in connection with six murders in 1992. Twice his execution was scheduled. He was eventually exonerated in 2010, and has since become an advocate for criminal-justice reform, hoping his unique experience behind bars will help improve the system from within.
“I have a lot of experience other people don’t have,” said Graves, in an interview with Forensic Magazine this morning.
Graves was appointed by city officials to a seat at the leadership table of the Houston Forensic Science Center, an independent crime lab that does fingerprint and firearms testing for the Houston Police Department and other law enforcement agencies. The former inmate, who does speaking tours around the country about his journey to freedom, said he is planning on going into the new role “with his eyes open” – adding as much as he can to his experience, so he has more to teach others.
“We have eight other members,” Graves said. “I want to be a team player.”
Graves was convicted in 1994 of assisting in the killings of Bobbie Davis, her daughter and her daughter's four children. But there was no physical evidence linking him to the deaths – and much of the state’s case was based on the testimony of the other man who was convicted, Robert Carter. Carter later recanted his story linking Graves to the crime, even minutes before his execution in 2000.
A federal appeals court tossed Graves’s conviction in 2006, and he was released in 2010, after the prosecutor declined to pursue another trial.
“This is not a case where the evidence went south with time or witnesses passed away or we just couldn't make the case anymore. He is an innocent man," Kelly Siegler, the special prosecutor on the case, reportedly said at the time.
The experience of being “under the belly of the beast” for long nights and the emotional rollercoaster of being an innocent man behind bars will provide the crime-lab board with some experience of how the unthinkable can happen in the criminal-justice system, Graves said.
“You couldn’t understand. Not unless it happens to you,” Graves said. “It’s a different world. It brings all different emotions. You have to get up under the belly of the beast to really understand.”
Improvements have been made – there is more awareness of innocent people behind bars, Graves said. But people are still being exonerated, even now – and there is never going to be total 100 percent success in arresting and convicting the right suspects, Graves said in the interview.
It’s the ability and the willingness to acknowledge when mistakes are made that will prevent the miscarriages of justice which can put a person behind bars for decades – or even condemn them to death.
“We’re not infallible. We’re going to make mistakes,” Graves said. “But acknowledging when we make mistakes – that’s when the system works.”
This month has brought a dramatic reversal of fortune to two of the major players in the case against Graves. Besides the crime-lab appointment for the 49-year-old exonerated man, the prosecutor who pursued the case against Graves, Charles Sebesta, was disbarred earlier this month. When asked about Sebesta’s loss of license, Graves did not sound bitter.
“God is good – that things would happen allowing me to tell my story, maybe to help others,” he said. “I wish him well.”
The first meeting with Graves on the board of directors is coming soon. He knows the monthly meetings will be busy – one of the other members is Nicole Casarez, the attorney who spent eight years getting him off death row.
“I know we’re going to be busy. I know how passionate she is,” he said. “I saw her for eight years, while she was saving my life.”