Why did Anthony Graves spend eighteen years behind bars—twelve of them on death row—for a crime he did not commit?
by Pamela Colloff
The 6,640th day of Anthony Graves’s incarceration—October 27, 2010—began like any other. He awoke at five o’clock in the morning to the sound of the food cart rattling down the hall of the Burleson County jail, where a guard slid his breakfast tray through a slot in his cell door. At seven o’clock, the overhead fluorescent lights came on, illuminating the windowless cell where he had lived in solitary confinement for the past four years. Graves turned on the TV, switching it to the local morning newscast. The 45-year-old inmate compulsively watched the news, trying to keep up-to-date on a world he had left behind when a newcomer named Bill Clinton was running for president. When it came time for his allotted hour of exercise, a guard escorted him to an empty concrete room, where he walked briskly in circles. He could glimpse the sky through four small windows above him that were covered in chicken wire. Every so often, when the wind kicked up outside, he could feel the breeze against his skin.
Eighteen years earlier, Graves had been arrested and charged with the most notorious crime in Burleson County history: the brutal slayings on August 18, 1992, of a well-liked Somerville woman named Bobbie Davis, her daughter, and her four grandchildren, each of whom had been stabbed multiple times before their home was set ablaze. The crime’s prime suspect, Robert Carter—a man whom Graves had known only in passing—had fingered Graves as the killer. Although at least three people could place Graves at his mother’s apartment at the time of the crime and no physical evidence linked him to the scene, he was charged with capital murder. With the help of Carter’s testimony, he was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to death. Graves would likely have been executed if not for a pivotal admission by the case’s lead prosecutor, district attorney Charles Sebesta, who let slip that Carter had, in fact, confessed to having committed the murders by himself. (Carter was executed in 2000.) That disclosure led a federal court to overturn Graves’s conviction in 2006, after finding that Carter’s statements had been withheld from the defense. Yet the ruling did not strike down the original charges of capital murder, so Graves was moved from death row to the Burleson County jail, in the Central Texas town of Caldwell, to await retrial; he was housed in solitary confinement because of concerns about his safety. At his new trial, slated to begin on February 14, 2011, prosecutors again planned to seek the death penalty.
After recreation time, Graves sat down to write a letter, in which he shared his certainty that special prosecutor Kelly Siegler would persuade a jury to find him guilty. The former Harris County assistant district attorney had sent nineteen men to death row and was known for securing convictions in old, difficult cases that were often based on circumstantial evidence. “She has a win-at-all-costs reputation,” Graves noted in his careful handwriting. “She’ll throw mud against the wall and see what sticks.”
Graves’s letter was a response to a note I had sent him several days earlier. We had corresponded for four months while I worked on an article for TEXAS MONTHLY that detailed the lack of evidence tying him to the Davis murders (“Innocence Lost,” October 2010), and we had continued the conversation in the weeks that followed. He knew that in mid-September—two days after the story was published—Siegler had requested a sit-down meeting with his attorneys. At that meeting, she had startled his defense team by acknowledging that she had serious reservations about the state’s case. She went on to say that they should not spend too much time on trial preparation but should give her a month to talk to various witnesses to ensure that she had not missed any key information. Siegler asked that they allow anyone who had been hesitant to talk in the past to meet with her and her investigator. If she found that there was insufficient evidence, she said, she would recommend that charges be dismissed.
Lead defense attorney Katherine Scardino was dubious; she had faced down Siegler before, and she suspected this was a tactical move, meant to delay her and her co-counsel from preparing for trial. Nicole Cásarez—a lawyer and journalism professor who had devoted the past eight years to investigating Graves’s case—worried that Siegler was trying to pump them for information that she could later exploit. Graves, too, was skeptical. “She’s interested in winning, not truth-seeking,” he wrote.
Graves never finished the letter. He was interrupted shortly after four o’clock, when the jail supervisor appeared outside his cell. Without explanation, the jailer unlocked the cell door and ordered Graves to follow him. Graves was allowed to walk without handcuffs. Bewildered, he was led to an interrogation room, where he saw that Cásarez and her co-counsel Jimmy Phillips Jr. were waiting. He was surprised, since they rarely visited unannounced.
Cásarez took his hands in hers and stared at him intently. “Remember you telling me that God is good?” she began. Years earlier, he had told her a story about how, on the day he learned that his conviction had been overturned, he had wanted to scream and shout, but he was mindful of being surrounded by men who still had execution dates. So instead he had looked up to the ceiling of his cell and said simply, “God is good.”
Graves nodded, studying her face for a clue as to what was going on.
“God is good,” Cásarez said, struggling to maintain her composure. “All charges have been dropped.”
He looked at her, dumbfounded.
“You’re free,” she said more emphatically. “You’re going home.”
“Are you playing with me?” he whispered.
Cásarez shook her head. “It’s over,” she said. “It’s finally over.”
On the table beside her was a dismissal order from the court filed at 3:57 p.m. that stated, “We have found no credible evidence which inculpates this defendant.” The decision to drop all charges had come so suddenly that the defense team had only learned the news earlier that afternoon. As Graves leaned against Cásarez, he broke down.
They stood together and cried for a long time. “Hey,” Cásarez said finally, smiling at the irony of what she was about to suggest. “Let’s get out of here.”
Graves hurriedly changed into the only clothes he owned: a gray blazer, button-down shirt, and navy-blue slacks that his attorneys had bought him for court appearances. He packed his life’s possessions—a toothbrush, toothpaste, a tin of hair grease, a stack of letters, and legal papers related to his case—into a single cardboard box and an onion sack. As he walked out of the jail’s sally port and into the parking lot, he took in the moment. Except for a lone TV crew that had been tipped off to his release, no one was waiting to greet him. His own family did not yet know that charges had been dropped; Cásarez had not trusted that he would be let go until she was handed the judge’s dismissal order moments before she saw him. Except for the sound of the occasional car passing by on Texas Highway 21, there was only silence. Graves stood in the late-?afternoon sunshine. “Eighteen years,” he said.
The next morning, at the courthouse in Brenham—where Graves’s retrial was to have been held—Burleson County district attorney Bill Parham told reporters at a hastily organized press conference that he was “absolutely convinced” of Graves’s innocence. Parham, who was elected DA in 2008, made clear that he did not decide to drop charges because too many witnesses had died over the years, or because key exhibits had become degraded, or because memories had faded. After a thorough reexamination of the case, he and the three people who flanked him that morning—Siegler; the district attorney’s investigator, Otto Hanak; and Texas Ranger Andres de la Garza—had all come to the same conclusion. “There’s not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case,” Parham said. “There is nothing.” When Siegler’s turn came to address reporters, she placed the blame for Graves’s wrongful conviction squarely on former DA Charles Sebesta. “It’s a prosecutor’s responsibility to never fabricate evidence or manipulate witnesses or take advantage of victims,” she said. “And unfortunately, what happened in this case is all of those things.” Graves’s trial, she said, had been “a travesty.”
To anyone familiar with Graves’s odyssey through the criminal justice system, the prosecution’s about-face was a staggering reversal. During Sebesta’s 25-year tenure as district attorney—at one time he oversaw four contiguous counties between Houston and Austin—he was arguably the region’s most powerful figure, and he had relentlessly pursued Graves, even though the case, as he had once conceded, “was not a slam dunk.” When Graves’s conviction was reversed, Sebesta had staked his legacy on the case. He took two polygraph exams in an attempt to prove that he had disclosed exculpatory evidence to the defense, and he spent thousands of dollars to run full-page ads in two local newspapers that detailed why, in his estimation, Graves was a murderer. Siegler’s withering assessment that morning (“Charles Sebesta handled this case in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare”) reframed the narrative: It was Sebesta, not Graves, who had done wrong. Her reputation as a fierce advocate of victims’ families made her unequivocal statements to reporters all the more credible; she could hardly be considered soft on crime or apt to be sympathetic to a man she had any reason to believe had actually stabbed four children to death.
That Siegler—known for having been one of the most aggressive prosecutors in Harris County, which has sent more people to the death chamber than any other county in the nation—had backed away from a capital murder case had the entire Houston defense bar talking. And so on a brisk November morning one week after the press conference, I visited her at her well-appointed Memorial home to find out what, exactly, had happened. Scattered across her dining room table, where we sat and talked, were yellow legal pads filled with her voluminous notes on the case. “I got sworn in as special prosecutor in February 2010, and I brought nineteen banker’s boxes full of documents home from Brenham to read,” she told me. (Most rural counties rely on special prosecutors to try death penalty cases because of their complexity; prior to Siegler, the case had been handled by special prosecutor Patrick Batchelor and lawyers at the attorney general’s office.) As she had sifted through nearly two decades’ worth of court papers—a task that took her six weeks—she had become increasingly puzzled. The Texas Rangers’ reports, she noted, focused almost exclusively on Carter. And their investigation had not uncovered any discernible motive for Graves.
“Common sense tells you that a person doesn’t stab babies unless he’s really mad about something, and Graves didn’t know the Davises,” she said. “It didn’t make sense.” She was particularly struck by the absence of physical evidence. “Why wasn’t Graves burned too?” she said, referring to Carter’s extensive injuries. “If he stabbed six people, why didn’t he have any cuts or marks? Why was there no blood on his clothes or in his car?” Siegler told me she had still been operating under the assumption that Graves was guilty, but she knew that she would need new information—such as a piece of evidence that could undergo DNA testing—to make her case.
For more than three hours that morning, Siegler led me through the transcript of The State of Texas v. Anthony Charles Graves, pointing out where she was troubled by Sebesta’s tactics. “This is from a pretrial hearing on July 22, 1994,” she said, ticking off the volume and page number in the court record. Dressed casually in jeans, the 48-year-old career prosecutor, who was narrowly defeated in 2008 for Harris County DA, delivered her comments with the same focused intensity of a good trial lawyer during closing arguments. “Sebesta says, ‘We want to put the court on notice that there is a strong indication that this defendant, Anthony Graves, may have been involved in the yogurt shop murders in Austin, Texas,’ ” she said, arching her eyebrows in incredulity. “Sebesta is accusing him of participating in another capital murder—and with what evidence?” she said. (No one else has ever suggested that Graves had anything to do with the infamous 1991 quadruple homicide.)
Later, she pointed to a moment during the trial when Sebesta announced outside the presence of the jury that Graves’s girlfriend, Yolanda Mathis—the defense’s most important alibi witness—had become a suspect herself. The Rangers who originally investigated the case told Siegler that, in fact, Mathis had never been a suspect. Still, Sebesta asked the judge to warn Mathis of her rights before she took the stand. “If someone needs to be warned of their rights in a criminal trial, they can’t be called to testify,” Siegler explained. “Sebesta knew what a good witness she was—he had heard her grand jury testimony—and he didn’t want the jury hearing what she had to say.” His gamble worked: Yolanda, who became hysterical, left the courthouse. “Then he had the nerve in final arguments to say, ‘Where’s Yolanda?’ ” said Siegler. “And the jury never knew why she didn’t show up.”
Siegler’s concerns mounted, she told me, as she realized that the trial strategy she had initially counted on was doomed. “My plan had been to find enough evidence to indict Theresa Carter again, and then flip her,” she said, referring to Robert Carter’s wife, Cookie, who had been charged in the Davis murders and held in the county jail but never brought to trial. “But the more I read, the more I realized that we didn’t have anything on Theresa Carter. I couldn’t figure out how she’d been indicted.”
Siegler made a lengthy list on legal pad paper—her “to-dos,” as she called them—of everyone who needed to be interviewed, from former cell mates of Graves’s to people who had not been contacted since the 1992 investigation. She wanted to see what information shook out, if any, that she might be able to take to trial. In the process, she would need to conduct a wholesale reinvestigation of the case. That Graves was in fact innocent did not sink in until later. “My thinking went from ‘We’re going to get this ready for trial’ to ‘Whoa, this is going to be hard to get ready for trial’ to ‘Okay, can we even go to trial?’ ” she said.
In April, Siegler had to shift her focus to another death penalty case she was handling for Burleson County. The Myron Douglas Phillips case, which was slated to go to trial in July, would occupy the rest of her spring and summer. When she saw Parham and Hanak at a pretrial hearing, she warned them of what she had found. “Guys, I’ve read everything on Graves, and we have big problems,” she said.
On September 27 Siegler sat down with Graves’s attorneys for their extraordinary face-to-face meeting. During the wide-ranging discussion, which spanned two hours, Siegler focused her attention on Cásarez, asking her detailed questions about her research: What was the name of the polygraph examiner who had administered a test to Carter on the eve of his testimony at Graves’s trial? Exactly when did the Jack in the Box clerk see Graves on the night of the crime? Had she ever spoken with Cookie’s cell mate? Initially, Siegler told me, she had discounted Cásarez and her undergraduate journalism students at the University of St. Thomas, in Houston. “I thought they were exaggerating the facts because they were rabid anti–death penalty people who had an agenda,” she said. “But we wouldn’t have gotten to this point if not for their work. As we did our investigation, we found that they were dead-on. Every aspect of the case fell apart when it was critically examined.”
Over the course of the next month, Siegler and Hanak, a former Texas Ranger with an understated, deliberative manner, interviewed upward of sixty people. “Our approach was not ‘Let’s go over your previous statements real quick and then we’ll let you know when to show up in court,’ ” Siegler told me. “It was ‘We’ve got some concerns about this case, so we’re approaching it with fresh eyes. Tell us what you’ve never said before. Let’s start at the beginning.’ ”
That shift in tone yielded important new information. They spoke with all of Graves’s alibi witnesses—something the Rangers who initially investigated the case had never done—and found them to be credible. One was Graves’s sister Deitrich Curry, who told them that shortly before her brother’s trial, she had been visited by two investigators who had warned her that if she left the county to travel to Angleton, where the trial had been moved, she would be arrested on outstanding traffic warrants. (Graves’s defense attorneys, who made critical errors at trial, never called her to testify.) Parham, who was receiving frequent updates on the progress of the investigation, was deeply troubled when he heard Curry’s story. “When you look at what happened to both her and Yolanda, you start to see a pattern of witness intimidation,” he said.
In early October, Siegler met with retired Texas Ranger Ray Coffman, who had led the investigation that resulted in Graves’s arrest. “He told me things that he had probably never told anyone before, which helped us get to today,” she said. Coffman recounted a conversation with Sebesta, which he had never forgotten, that had taken place just before a grand jury was to begin examining what Cookie’s role might have been in the murders. The retired Ranger said he had asked Sebesta, “How are you going to get an indictment on her when we don’t have any evidence?” As Coffman told it, Sebesta had gestured with one hand, as if rolling dice, then boasted, “I’m going to play me a little Tennessee gambler today.”
Cookie’s former attorney, Rob Neal, lent credence to the notion that Sebesta had pursued an indictment against Cookie with no solid evidence. (Neither Neal nor Coffman would comment for this story.) According to Seigler, Neal said that Sebesta had made a surprising disclosure in the fall of 1992, not long after Cookie was charged with the Davis murders: He told Neal that he had no actual intention of prosecuting her. In fact, Neal told Siegler, shortly before Cookie’s probable cause hearing—at which Sebesta would have been required to disclose the evidence he had against her—she was released on a $50,000 personal bond, just eight weeks after being indicted. “She was charged with murdering six people and she was allowed to go home?” Siegler said to me, shaking her head in disbelief. The significance of Neal’s and Coffman’s disclosures was enormous, since the implicit threat of Cookie’s prosecution had been instrumental in getting a reluctant Carter to finally agree to testify against Graves. (Carter penned a letter four years after the trial in which he claimed to have falsely testified against Graves in order to protect his wife, who was “totally innocent,” he wrote. “The DA and law enforcement believe she was involved, so I lied on an innocent man to keep my family safe.”) “Neal thought she had been indicted so that Sebesta would have leverage against Carter,” Siegler told me.
When I later contacted Sebesta, he strenuously defended his prosecution of Graves. He did not deny the “Tennessee gambler” story, explaining, “Every time a prosecutor walks into the courtroom and selects a jury, he is literally rolling the dice.” Nor did he deny having the conversation with Neal. However, he insisted that the exchange had taken place in 1994, after both Carter and Graves had gone to trial, when he realized that neither man would testify against Cookie. “I did tell Rob Neal that I had no intention of going to trial at that particular time,” he e-mailed me. “That’s when we made the decision to release her on bond.” He could not explain why Cookie had been released two years earlier, long before either man went to trial.
As their investigation continued, Siegler and Hanak invited the former district attorney to come down to his old office one afternoon to discuss the case. “I asked him, ‘How exactly did you indict Cookie?’ and he said, ‘Well, there was evidence,’ ” Siegler recalled. “So I pressed him. I said, ‘Charles, what evidence?’ And the only thing he could come up with was that curling iron burn.” (At the time of her arrest, Cookie had a small mark above her left elbow that she attributed to a curling iron.) The burn had not been photographed or documented during the original investigation, and in Siegler’s opinion, it was hardly enough to warrant capital murder charges. As she summarized the problems she had encountered with the case, she told Sebesta that one of the prosecution’s star witnesses, ex-jailer Shawn Eldridge, could no longer be counted on to say that he had overheard Graves saying, “I did it.” (Eldridge admitted that he was not sure whose voice he had heard over the jail intercom.) “I told Sebesta that if the case ever went to trial, he would be called as a witness and he would have to answer some difficult questions,” she said. Sebesta—a voluble man who usually enjoyed holding forth on the Graves case—was visibly subdued that day. “His hands were shaking,” Siegler said. “He wasn’t the same person that had been described to me. I almost felt sorry for him.”
Hanak continued to work his way through the to-do list, approaching friends, acquaintances, and relatives of Graves’s who had seen him in the hours leading up to, and following, the crime. Many had not been taken seriously by previous investigators, or had never been interviewed at all, and were wary of his intentions. But Hanak was patient, sitting on sagging front porches and lawn chairs and making conversation until they agreed to talk. All of them placed Graves in Brenham, sixteen miles away from the scene of the murders. They recalled an untroubled young man who had driven to the Jack in the Box for a hamburger with his girlfriend, gone to bed, and then dropped his aunt off at work the next morning. The portrait that emerged was hardly that of a man consumed with homicidal rage.
“About halfway into this investigation, I had a sickening feeling,” Hanak told me the week after Graves’s release, as we discussed the case at the district attorney’s office in Brenham. He explained that he had begun his career in law enforcement in 1978, at the age of eighteen, as a prison guard, walking the halls of death row. “I never would have believed that an innocent man could end up there,” he said. “Never. Not until I worked this case.” He pulled out the legal pad he had carried with him during his investigation and flipped to a page on which he had scribbled two headings: “Evidence” and “Witnesses.” Below the headings, the page was empty. “I kept trying to fill in the blanks, but there was nothing there,” he said.
By late October, Siegler and her team—including Ranger de la Garza, who assisted Hanak in the final days of the investigation—had come to a consensus. “I can’t pinpoint the exact day, but our thinking evolved from ‘We have insufficient evidence to go to trial’ to ‘This is an innocent man,’ ” she told me. Helping them make their final determination was seeing the switchblade that the original prosecution had argued was the twin of the knife that had been used to inflict 66 stab wounds. (The actual murder weapon was never recovered.) “When the AG’s office handed it over to us, Otto and I looked at each other, because the knife had no hilt,” Siegler told me. “Now, think about this for a minute. If you’re using a knife that has no hilt and you’re thrusting it into skulls and bone—with that many victims, that many times—at some point your hand is going to slip and get cut.” Parham summed up their outlook at that stage of the investigation: “We realized the prosecution’s entire case came down to ‘Carter said Graves did it, and by the way, here are some gruesome crime scene photographs.’ ”
On October 26 the prosecution team drove to Cypress, outside Houston, to tell the Davis family that they planned to drop all charges. Although Siegler had laid the groundwork two weeks earlier, when she told Bobbie Davis’s sister and three surviving children that she was not certain the case could go to trial, the conversation that night quickly devolved into a heated argument, with one member of the extended family accusing her of being unwilling to try the case because she was afraid to lose. For nearly three hours, she, Parham, and Hanak shared their findings, but a few of the nearly two dozen Davis relatives who were present remained unconvinced.
“It’s hard to stop believing something you’ve believed for eighteen years,” said Keith Davis, who lost his mother, sister, six-year-old daughter Brittany, and five-year-old daughter Lea’Erin. When I met with him, one week after Graves’s release, he was slowly coming to accept that the man whose execution he had fought for had, in fact, been wrongfully convicted. “You have to understand—there were so many things we didn’t know,” he said. “We were outside the courtroom when we saw Yolanda Mathis leave. We didn’t know Sebesta had threatened her. He told us she didn’t testify because her story wasn’t true.” Sebesta also told them, Davis said, that Graves might have been involved in the yogurt shop murders.
“We’re mad. I’m not going to lie,” he continued matter-of-factly. “This could have ended ten years ago, when Carter was executed. We’ve had to relive this every day since then. I’ve seen Graves hundreds of times in court, and every time, I thought I was looking at the man who murdered my children.”
Thirteen days after Graves walked out of the Burleson County jail, I visited him at his brother’s apartment, on a leafy, shaded street dotted with genteel old homes south of Brenham’s main square. I had talked to him briefly at the defense’s press conference, held the day after his release in Houston, where more than fifty reporters and cameramen had squeezed into Katherine Scardino’s office to listen to what he had to say. Under the glare of the television lights, he had been remarkably poised. (“I never hesitated,” he explained of his decision in 2008 to turn down a life sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. “I said, ‘You either free me or kill me, but I’m standing on what’s right.’ ”) Still, it was a shock to see him that afternoon standing at the front door. My last visit to the apartment had been in June, to interview his brother Arthur Curry, back when Graves was still facing the possibility of another death sentence. Now he was home, dressed in a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt and jeans, a brand-new cell phone in his pocket. Gone were the handcuffs, the isolation, the fear of never being believed. It was a beautiful autumn day; a breeze rustled the oak trees above him, and he was free to go wherever he pleased. “Crazy, I know,” he said, breaking into a grin as I walked up the driveway and shook my head in amazement. “It’s crazy.”
He had just finished making himself a breakfast of sausage, grits, and eggs over easy: the second meal he had cooked in eighteen years. As we sat and talked in Arthur’s living room, he told me about his new life. “I’m a vagabond,” he said, explaining that he was living out of a suitcase, moving back and forth between his brother’s place, Cásarez’s house in Houston, and his sister’s home in Pflugerville, north of Austin. He had no car, no job, and only a few hundred dollars to his name. His first order of business was to get a new driver’s license, “so I can prove who I am,” he said. Once he had his ID and some spending money, he wanted to visit the Northeast, where he planned to move. “I have a friend in Boston who wants to help me get my life together,” he said. Although he hoped to seek compensation from the state—in theory, he is entitled to $1.4 million under the Tim Cole Act, a state law that grants ex-inmates $80,000 for each year they were wrongfully incarcerated—his odds of actually receiving money looked slim. The wording of the court order that resulted in his release referred only to the lack of evidence against him, not his “actual innocence,” a legal standard that must be met to receive compensation. The state comptroller’s office will likely render a decision by early 2011.
As we sat and talked, Graves seemed no different than when I had met him at the Burleson County jail—calm, self-possessed, and extraordinarily normal considering everything he had been through. But there were signs that his reentry had not been easy. I noticed that the blinds in the living room were half-drawn and the TV was tuned to the news, as if he were trying to approximate, in some small way, his previous surroundings. “I’m still adjusting,” he said. “I was by myself for so long that it’s hard to be around too many people right now.” Even visiting the grocery store or being at a large family gathering was overwhelming. Sleeping had been difficult, he explained, because he had become accustomed to the thin plastic mattress that covered his steel bunk at the county jail, where he had balled up his clothes into a makeshift pillow. “The first night I was out, I tossed and turned because I was on a real bed with all these pillows and a ceiling fan to keep me cool. My body wasn’t used to that kind of comfort.”
The previous night, he said, he had invited his sons over to watch football, and they had shared a beer together. His three boys—who were twelve, eight, and seven years old at the time of his arrest—were now grown men with families of their own. “Anthony is thirty, Terrance is twenty-seven, and Alex is twenty-six,” he said, gesturing toward family photos from which he was conspicuously absent. “I missed their ball games, the births of their children, all the big moments in their lives. So we can’t pick up where we left off. I don’t feel comfortable coming in and trying to play the role of dad. I’m just trying to be a good friend.”
I asked him about Sebesta’s comments to the Brenham Banner-Press a day after his release, in which the former district attorney—in a front-page story titled “Sebesta Sticking to Original Claim: Guilty”—said he remained certain that Graves had taken part in the Davis murders. To make his point, Sebesta disclosed that Graves had failed a 2008 polygraph exam. Polygraphs are not admissible in court because of their unreliability, but Graves explained to me that he had agreed to take one because he was confident it would clear him—and because special prosecutor Patrick Batchelor had promised to drop all charges if he passed the test. (Batchelor is best known for his prosecution of Cameron Todd Willingham, whose 2004 execution has come under scrutiny as new forensic science techniques have since called his guilt into question.)
Graves vividly remembered the day when he was driven to Dallas for the polygraph. The examiner, he recalled, spent seven hours with him before actually administering the test. “He would make small talk with me for a few minutes, walk out of the room, stay gone for about thirty minutes or an hour, then come back in and ask me another couple questions,” he told me. “This started at nine o’clock in the morning, and he didn’t give me the test until four o’clock that afternoon. That whole time, I’m sitting there waiting to take a test that could give me back my freedom. So by the time four o’clock rolled around, I was no calm, cool, collected person.” In hindsight, he said, he was cynical about the purpose of the polygraph. “When they told me I had failed, I knew it was a game, just another game,” he said. As for Sebesta’s publicizing it, Graves shook his head and smiled. “I think he’s on a sinking ship by himself,” he said. “To be honest with you, Charles Sebesta is the last thing on my mind right now.”
To listen to him that morning was to marvel at the fact that he had survived eighteen years of “hell,” as he succinctly described it, with his dignity, integrity, and mental health intact. He was hopeful about the future, not bitter about the past. But personally, as an observer, I couldn’t help but feel angry. As we talked, I shared with him what had been nagging at me ever since Siegler had publicly denounced Sebesta. To anyone familiar with Graves’s case, the notion that just one person was at fault for the wrong that had been done to him was too simple a story line. The truth, I thought, was much worse. Absent from Siegler’s critique was any mention of Ranger Coffman, whose flawed investigation had led to Graves’s arrest. (Rick Ojeda, an ex–FBI agent who was hired by the defense to reexamine the case, told me it was “by far the sloppiest, and most blatantly biased, investigation I’ve seen in twenty-two years of law enforcement.”) Also overlooked were the appellate judges who rubber-stamped his conviction for twelve years; his new trial judge, Reva Towslee-Corbett, who ruled that Carter’s perjured testimony could be entered into evidence and read to the jury at his retrial; Batchelor, who pursued a death sentence even though he had so little solid evidence that he offered to dismiss all charges if Graves passed a polygraph; and assistant attorney general Lance Kutnick, who relied on junk science (a “scent lineup” conducted by now disgraced dog handler Keith Pikett) to try and build a case against him.
The reinvestigation had left me with more questions than answers, I told Graves. Why had Batchelor and Kutnick, who jointly handled the case for three years, not examined the evidence with the rigor that Siegler had? Why had Coffman—who went on to serve as the chief of the Texas Rangers until his retirement, in 2009—not spoken up after Cookie’s indictment? Why had Coffman given conflicting accounts under oath as recently as 2007 regarding whether or not Carter had told him that he had acted alone?
Graves smiled as I grew more and more animated, citing problems with his case that I wished Siegler had delved into more deeply. He, by contrast, seemed remarkably at peace. And so I had to ask him: How was he not consumed with anger? “I’ll get angry if people don’t take what happened to me seriously enough to push for change,” he said. “I want prosecutors to be held accountable. But I’ve given too many years, and too much of my energy, to being angry, and I won’t let negativity defeat me. The people who did this to me, they have to look at themselves in the mirror. But me, I have to live.”