This Week in Innocence


Texas has released a death row inmate.

After 18 years of incarceration and countless protestations of innocence, Anthony Graves finally got a nod of approval from the one person who mattered Wednesday and at last returned home — free from charges that he participated in the butchery of a family in Somerville he did not know and free of the possibility that he would have to answer for them with his life.

The district attorney for Washington and Burleson counties, Bill Parham, gave Graves his release. The prosecutor filed a motion to dismiss charges that had sent Graves to Texas' death row for most of his adult life. Graves returned to his mother's home in Brenham no longer the "cold-blooded killer," so characterized by the prosecutor who first tried him, but as another exonerated inmate who even in the joy of redemption will face the daunting prospect of reassembling the pieces of a shattered life.

"He's an innocent man," Parham said, noting that his office investigated the case for five months. "There is nothing that connects Anthony Graves to this crime. I did what I did because that's the right thing to do."

Graves was convicted of assisting Robert Earl Carter in killing a 45-year-old woman, her daughter, and her four grandchildren in 1992. Carter initially implicated Graves, but later recanted. Carter again insisted Graves was innocent just before he was executed in 2000. The man who prosecuted Graves apparently still believes he is guilty.

Charles Sebesta, then the district attorney, did not believe Carter. Even after he no longer held the post, Sebesta held to his beliefs, calling Graves "cold-blooded" and taking out an ad in two Burleson County newspapers in 2009 to dispute media reports criticizing the conduct of prosecutors.

The evidence against Graves was never overwhelming, depending mostly on Carter's earlier accusation and jailhouse statements purportedly overheard by law enforcement officers. Even Sebesta acknowledged it was not his strongest case.

"I've had some slam-dunk cases," he said in 2001. "It was not a slam-dunk case."

Yet he still sought—and won—a death sentence. (Sebesta has had problems in other cases, too.)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned Graves' conviction, noting the considerable weakness of the state's case against him. That court also found that Sebasta withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense and knowingly put on false testimony. Yet as late as last year, prosecutors were still seeking to retry Graves anyway, this time based largely on a "scent lineup," in which they used dogs to sniff out burnt clothing removed from a 17-year-old crime scene. 

…prosecutors this summer brought in Fort Bend County Deputy Keith Pikett to conduct a "scent lineup" – a practice of dubious scientific validity that was recently the subject of a scathing report from the Lubbock-based Innocence Project of Texas. This type of lineup, with dogs supposedly matching a scent from a crime scene to a scent collected from a suspect, is junk science, the Innocence Project charges, while questioning Pikett's techniques in conducting the dog-led lineup. The procedure has indeed been implicated in a number of wrongful arrests and convictions. According to the report, released Sept. 21, Pikett has no formal training in the practice – nor does he apparently think any is necessary. Pikett has testified in court (in a matter unrelated to Graves) that there is no need for formal training or for scientific rules or protocols when conducting such lineups, and Pikett has rejected the importance of scientific studies regarding scent identification. Nonetheless, prosecutors across the state – including with the Texas Attorney General's Office – have relied on Pikett for "expert testimony" in a number of criminal cases.

I've previously written about Deputy Pikett and the junk science of scent linups here and here.

But hey, Graves was eventually exonerated and released, right? As Justice Scalia would assure us, this case is just more proof that the system is working.