Criminal Justice

This Week in Innocence

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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.

NEXT: The President With Two Faces

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  1. Carter initially implicated Carter, but later recanted.

    That second “Carter” should be “Graves”, no?

  2. That Scalia jab was pointless and petty. Scalia had nothing to do with this case.

    1. In the linked case, Scalia wrote, “Reversal of an erroneous conviction on appeal or on habeas, or the pardoning of an innocent condemnee through executive clemency, demonstrates not the failure of the system but its success.”

      It’s a silly argument. A system capable of sending an innocent man to prison for 18 years, and nearly executing him, is not a “success” because a college journalism class and the Innocence Project finally shamed the state into releasing him.

      1. But a system caple of recognizing its errors and exonerating those affected by said errors is successful, no? Much better than, say, our public school systems, correct?

        1. But a system caple of recognizing its errors and exonerating those affected by said errors is successful, no?

          I would not characterize a system that makes catastrophic errors and refuses to correct them for 18 years as successful, even if it does, eventually correct them.

          1. That problem is that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals took 14 years to hear the case and rule.

            And ultimately that problem is that the laws are too damn many.

            The Court of Appeals did their job, once it got to them. It’s a good thing that the system is structured to have them take a look instead of leaving it up to the local police and prosecutors, who wanted to retry him.

        2. The overall system may have been successful (in this case), but the trial system itself was thereby shown to have failed.

      2. It’s a silly argument.

        Yours is a silly argument, because you’re apparently insisting that the system be 100% perfect, which is exactly the kind of incredibly silly argument that Justice Scalia was disputing in his statement. There are guaranteed to be both type I and type II errors in no matter what system that you set up.

        If no one was ever released on appeal or after an investigation, would you seriously believe that that meant that no one was ever wrongfully convicted? I sure as hell wouldn’t, I’d believe that it only meant that the appeal system was fundamentally broken.

        It would be like believing that there’s no one worth pardoning in federal prison simply because President Obama hasn’t granted one.

        At the same time, because I’m consistent, I don’t get outraged if one recipient of clemency out of many ends up committing a crime, if the initial sentence was still too harsh for the situation.

        The system should have safeguards, and the system should have multiple distinct groups of people looking at cases and able to overturn.

        Answering the question of whether the system is broken on the basis of whether or not someone innocent is eventually released is near useless.

        Things like the cop cases, where “the system” punishes whistleblowers and enforces the blue wall of silence are more meaningful.

        1. Answering the question of whether the system is broken on the basis of whether or not someone innocent is eventually released is near useless.

          OK, well, do you consider the system broken if the state executes an innocent man? Because I do, and it is.

          I’m not anti-death penalty per se, but the burden of proof for the prosecution should be ridiculously high to the point where if something calls in to question the whether or not the evidence is “beyond a reasonable doubt” then they can’t be executed.

          That’s not the way it is now, as the Willingham case has shown us. Therefore, the system is broke dude.

          1. I’ll also add that the “18 years” portion of the equation equals broken. Convicted wrongly and released after a year is tragic, but functioning. 18 years to reverse a wrongful conviction is broken.

        2. “”There are guaranteed to be both type I and type II errors in no matter what system that you set up.””

          That alone should be good enough to forbid the government from captiol punishment.

        3. Yours is a silly argument, because you’re apparently insisting that the system be 100% perfect, which is exactly the kind of incredibly silly argument that Justice Scalia was disputing in his statement.

          No I’m not, and no, he wasn’t. DNA testing showed us that the system is far less perfect than we thought it was. Scalia argues in Marsh that, on the contrary, the DNA exonerations are proof that the system is working. The innocent guy got released.

          Does Scalia believe the systemic flaws (prosecutorial misconduct, forensic junk science, eyewitness testimony, snitch testimony, etc.) that led to the wrongful convictions revealed by DNA testing only exist in those cases amenable to DNA testing?

          DNA exonerations, and cases where innocence was proven years later and thanks to fortuitous intervention by, for example, a college journalism class, aren’t proof the system works. They’re a warning sign that it’s flawed.

          1. Well said. Use that last paragraph as the intro and premise for your article in Time magazine.

          2. It’s no use. John loves Scalia dick in his mouth.

      3. It demonstrates the success of the higher court system in the face of egregious failure by local police and prosecutors. It takes too damn long for the Court of Appeals to rule, but that’s the main problem from the judicial perspective– and it’s not clear what other policy the judicial system could adopt. Making it easier for more dubious appeals to be heard would only make it take longer and longer to process the reasonable ones.

        The only real solutions are to reduce the number of crimes, especially the victimless crimes, and better local police and prosecutorial standards. Oh, and relaxing immunity. But apparently most of those are crazy ideas, including to Democrats.

        1. “”It demonstrates the success of the higher court system in the face of egregious failure by local police and prosecutors.””

          The higher court system is not the one Radley is critizing.

        2. “”The only real solutions are to reduce the number of crimes, especially the victimless crimes, and better local police and prosecutorial standards.””

          Yeah, but I’m not convince the voting public will go for it. It’s not just about politicians, they pander to ideologies the ring big with the voter to get elected.

  3. Parham is due some respect, although it’s kind of sad that you have to take notice when a DA values justice more than convictions.

    Cold comfort for Anthony Graves, though. I hope he finds peace.

    1. He’ll find 50 grand for every year he spent incarcerated. Better than what some get.

      1. Less than what he deserves, but I hope he does get that much.

  4. The evidence against Graves was never overwhelming, depending mostly on Carter’s earlier accusation and jailhouse statements purportedly overheard by law enforcement officers.

    Flags. Bright red neon flags.

    1. seriously wtf – overheard by LEOs?? – if they want you convicted you will get convicted…

      1. Worse, once LEO testifies as to what he heard you say, the only recourse is to take the stand and say “nuh-uh, I never said that”. Real powerful stuff. You are reduced to trying to prove that LEO is lying – and there’s a built-in presumption that he’s telling the truth. After all, what possible motivation would he have to lie? So we just flipped the presumption of innocence on its head.

  5. If we’re going to keep the death penalty (and I’m not advocating we should), there needs to be at least some evidentiary requirements beyond hearsay and jailhouse snitches. Evidence like DNA, video, multiple unrelated witness, caught in the act, etc.

    1. The government has convinced me that they simply can not be responsible enough to be trusted with such an option.

  6. Cameron Todd Willingham could not be reached for comment.

    Because he’s dead. Scalia probably doesn’t consider that case “success”.

    1. Scalia is a piece of shit who likes cop cock up his bunghole.

  7. I truly think that the only way currently to stop these types of public employee abuses needs to be public shaming. Get the abuser’s pictures out. Leave restaurants, bars, stores, when they enter. Etc. The fact that people like Charles Sebesta walk around without anybody knowing about their deeds is ridiculous. They should be treated like O.J.

    1. Maybe they should be force to wear a shirt, or hold a board in public that says, I tried to kill an innocent man.

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