A wrongfully convicted man is very familiar with the flaws in our criminal justice system
Anthony Graves calls October 27, 2010, his new birthday. On that day, he was released from prison after serving 18 years—16 in solitary confinement and 12 on death row—for a crime he didn’t commit.
As a 26-year-old, Graves was convicted as an accomplice in the 1992 Somerville, Texas, murders. While imprisoned, he received two execution dates and saw more than 350 men go to their deaths. The man convicted with Graves confessed in 2000 that he alone committed the crimes, but it took 10 more years before Graves was exonerated and walked out of prison as “a 45-year-old man, carrying a box that held everything he owned.”
Graves recently spoke with Urban Institute staff about his journey and how the criminal justice system failed him. The discussion drew from Graves’s account published this year, Infinite Hope: How Wrongful Conviction, Solitary Confinement, and 12 Years on Death Row Failed to Kill My Soul.
For a more just system, we must understand and prevent justice system errors
Like many wrongful convictions, several factors were to blame for Graves’s imprisonment. During Graves’s trial, the prosecutor intimidated Graves’s alibi witness by claiming she had become a suspect, which made her too scared to testify. And after Graves’s release, two jurors told him that they convicted him despite their belief in his innocence. And in Graves’s words, racism played “a major role” in the shape of his story from beginning to end.
This type of serious error has been described as a “sentinel event”—that is, a negative event caused by system weakness and compounding errors, both intentional and not. Recent Urban Institute research on wrongful convictions in cases involving sexual assault in Virginia suggests that the incidence of wrongful conviction may be surprisingly high.
Since 2011, the National Institute of Justice has explored how local reviews of sentinel events like Graves’s wrongful conviction can uncover processes in need of reform. There is hope that pilots under way in three jurisdictions can show that sentinel event reviews can prevent future egregious errors.
They drop you off and say “good luck”
Graves described the many challenges that face someone leaving prison. In his case, “the whole world had changed,” he said. His friends had disappeared, and advances in technology and the economy left him with a lot to learn in little time.
Describing the lack of societal supports for people leaving prison, Graves remarked, “They drop you off and say ‘good luck.’”
He added, “If you want to know why recidivism is still high, that’s why.”
Initiatives surrounding reentry are attempting to address this issue. The US Department of Health and Human Services funded six “Fatherhood Reentry” Pilot Projects to help returning fathers achieve self-sufficiency and reunite with their families.
Movements to restore voting rights to people with felony records help people participate more fully in society, restore political power to communities with high rates of justice involvement, and may shift public perceptions of people who have interacted with the criminal justice system.
Being part of the solution
With funds received for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment, Graves established the Anthony Graves Foundation, “dedicated to meaningful criminal justice reform that promotes fairness, equality, and humanity.” Through this work, he is using his voice to be part of the solution to reduce justice system errors.
Graves brings his voice to important Texas criminal justice stakeholders. He is on the board of directors of the Houston Forensic Science Center, which oversees the city’s crime lab and helps ensure criminal prosecutions are based on solid evidence. “Every time the scientists come together and talk about their work, they see my face and remember what’s at stake,” Graves said.
As a credible messenger, Graves brings his voice to places like Urban to ensure our research and policy recommendations are informed by people with experience. Graves’ story reflects serious challenges in our criminal justice system and reflects hope that the future will bring meaningful change.
Despite the bleak situation surrounding him, Graves maintained his integrity. “You can kill me or free me,” he told prosecutors when they asked him to plead guilty, “but I’m not compromising the truth.”
Anthony Graves stands for a portrait. Photo by Maura Friedman/Urban Institute.