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The Contrarian

For the second consecutive year, a Texas Observer reporter is a finalist for the most prestigious award in magazine journalism.

The American Society of Magazine Editors announced this morning that Observer staff writer Emily DePrang is a finalist for a 2014 National Magazine Award.

Emily DePrangEmily is nominated in the reporting category for her two-part series on police brutality in Houston. She’s a finalist along with reporters for The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Outside and The Atavist. The winner will be announced at a banquet in New York City on May 1.

The National Magazine Awards, or Ellies, are considered the Pulitzer Prizes of the magazine industry. This is the third Ellie nomination in the Observer’s 60-year history, and the second in two years. The Observer’s Melissa del Bosque was a 2013 finalist in the reporting category.

Emily’s stories—“Crimes Unpunished” and “The Horror Every Day”—published in the July and September issues of the Observer, were the result of eight months of reporting. The stories exposed that the Houston Police Department rarely disciplines officers for misconduct and abuse. Over a six-year period, officers who left crime scenes, falsified reports, mauled suspects and shot unarmed citizens were allowed to keep their jobs and are still patrolling the streets of the nation’s fourth-largest city. Emily found that between 2007 and 2012, Houston cops were involved in 550 shootings of people and animals. The department deemed every one of those 550 shootings justified, including the killing of a wheelchair-bound mentally ill double amputee who was armed with only a ballpoint pen.

Emily’s reporting was picked up by CNN, the Houston Chronicle and The Huffington Post, among others.

Congratulations to Emily! This is one of the most prestigious honors in journalism and well-deserved recognition of her work.

And congratulations to our staff and everyone who helps this little magazine in Texas produce some of the best journalism in the country.

Welcome, Chris Hooks

The 2014 election is shaping up as one to remember in Texas, even by our high standards. Kinky Friedman is back on the ballot—oh, how we missed him—Ted Nugent is serving as treasurer for agriculture commissioner hopeful Sid Miller, and all four GOP candidates for lieutenant governor have endorsed teaching creationism in schools. Then there’s the prospect of Texas’ first competitive governor’s race since what seems like Reconstruction.

So it’s a good time for the Observer to bolster its political reporting, and I’m excited to announce that Austin journalist Christopher Hooks has joined our staff as politics writer. Chris will report, analyze, fact-check and occasionally mock the happenings on the campaign trail and at the Legislature on his new blog, Hooks on Politics.

Chris is an Austin native who ventured to New York City for college, graduating from the New School in 2012. He covered the 2013 legislative session for The Texas Tribune as a reporting intern, and has since written freelance pieces for Texas Monthly, Slate, Politico, and, of course, the Observer.

In his assignments for the Observer, Chris has proved himself an intrepid reporter. Last fall, Chris found himself the only reporter at a meeting of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, where Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called for Obama’s impeachment. It turned into a big story, one Chris managed to get despite two large men ejecting him from the event.

He’s also written a wonderful scene piece about the pro-gun rally at the Alamo and a profile of J. Allen Carnes, the only Republican running for ag commissioner with extensive experience in agriculture.

Chris will be posting several stories per week. You can follow him on Twitter @cd_hooks.

Wendy Davis’ Media Fail

The campaign’s mismanagement of the press is damaging Davis' candidacy.
Wendy Davis speaking
Patrick Michels
Wendy Davis speaks at her gubernatorial campaign announcement October 3 in Haltom City.

I’ll concede here at the beginning that I’ve never worked on a political campaign. Nor do I have any experience in media relations, publicity, political communication or whatever else flacks do. I don’t know the nuances of trying to defuse controversy with a speech. But I have covered many political campaigns in Texas the past decade, so I know what it looks like when a campaign handles the press well.

And the Wendy Davis operation is about the worst at media relations that I’ve ever seen. Her team’s mismanagement of the press is damaging her candidacy.

The foul-ups began as soon as Davis entered the race, and hired a young and relatively inexperienced communications team that had spent little to no time working as reporters. At first, the mistakes were minor, even funny. For instance, Davis’ press staff directed a Texas Tribune reporter to the wrong place for an event and gave a Texas Observer reporter the wrong address to their own campaign headquarters. I’m sure that was annoying for the misdirected reporters, but nothing that would affect the campaign.

As the weeks went by, though, Davis’ team often treated the press with suspicion, asking repeatedly what a story would say before granting access to staffers, refusing to confirm basic campaign scheduling details and shielding Davis from in-person interviews with some major outlets.

That won’t win you any friends in the press and won’t earn much favorable coverage. Still, these are the kind of errors that only journalists care about, the stuff of endless reporter gripe sessions.

In November, when Davis swung through the Rio Grande Valley, the mishandling of the press started to become a real liability. The campaign invited reporters to attend volunteer phone-banks. That’s not the most compelling political theater, but reporters in the Valley showed up for a rare chance to query Davis in person. At the event in McAllen, as the Monitor’s Sandra Sanchez would later report in a piece titled “Wendy Davis Is Not Ready for Prime Time”:

“It was embarrassing to watch as a campaign staffer prematurely announced Davis’ arrival and urged everyone to stand up and chant, which they did for several minutes until it was obvious that Davis wasn’t there. ‘I thought she was here,’ a worker mused into the microphone to the quizzical and confused glances from the crowd of 60 or so.”

When Davis did arrive, she met with reporters for 10 minutes. Sanchez asked the candidate about her statement, at an earlier event in the Valley, that Davis was “pro-life.” This was a predictable question given the campaign’s reluctance to even say the word “abortion.” Sanchez documents what happened next: “[Davis] looked at me and shook her head. But before she could articulate, her new press aide Rebecca Acuña jumped in and said ‘that comment was taken out of context.’”

You almost never see a flack jump in front of their boss like that. Makes the politician look weak. Acuña then called Sanchez later that night and asked her to change a headline on the Monitor’s website.

We might blame these screw-ups on the follies common to a recently formed campaign. But it’s gotten only worse.

In the past two weeks, the campaign’s response to the controversy over the details of Davis’ bio (aka, Trailer-gate) has been slow and weak. On Tuesday night—a mere 11 days after The Dallas Morning News story that raised questions about her bio was published—Davis gave what her campaign termed a major speech to “set the record straight” at a fundraiser in Austin.

That quote—“set the record straight”—comes from the media advisory about the speech the Davis campaign distributed on Tuesday afternoon. A media advisory is like an invitation. By sending one out, you’re inviting (or in some cases begging) the press to cover your event.

But when reporters arrived at the Four Seasons ballroom, they were turned away. As The Dallas Morning News’ Wayne Slater and the San Antonio Express-News’ David Saleh Rauf reported, event organizers said the room was too full and there wasn’t space for the press. Why wouldn’t they make room for media at an event that featured Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood, and Davis’ response to a controversy attracting national media attention?

Of course, there was room for some media—The Texas Tribune was allowed in to livestream and cover the speech. That, according to a well-reported piece by the Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove, was the result of intrepid work by Tribune reporter Jay Root. Good on him for getting a scoop. But that doesn’t explain why the campaign and event organizers would grant exclusive access to a major campaign speech to one media outlet.

It turned out the Davis campaign’s media advisory actually stated that the event was closed to the press but helpfully provided the link to the Trib’s livestream. This is not unlike someone sending you an invitation that says you’re not invited to a party, but, hey, you can watch it on Skype.

If you would find that offensive, then you can understand why some reporters, Rauf especially, were angry and have been ripping the Davis campaign and the Democratic Party this week on Twitter.

While it’s not smart to enrage most of the Capitol press corps, there’s a bigger issue. The Davis campaign almost certainly robbed the speech of wider media exposure by barring TV stations and major daily newspaper reporters.

Then there’s the questionable decision to hold Davis’ big “set the record straight” speech, after not responding very forcefully for 11 days, the same night as the State of the Union.

That’s all too bad, because Davis gave a great speech. It was heartfelt and impassioned. You can watch it on YouTube. It’s been viewed 801 times.

The gubernatorial campaign has just started, of course, and there’s plenty of time for the Davis staffers to become more media savvy. But so far their handling of the press is doing a disservice to their candidate.

It Was a Very Good Year

Every media outlet on earth is running year-in-review pieces this week. Here at The Texas Observer, we usually don’t follow the media crowd, but in this case, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize what our writers and editors accomplished in 2013. Thanks to their hard work (and the generous support of people like you), we’ve published more impact stories, won more awards, and attracted more readers in 2013 than ever before. Among our successes: 

—For only the second time, the Observer was a finalist for a National Magazine Award—the highest honor in magazine journalism. That was one of five national journalism awards our writers either won or were nominated for.

—We reported how the Texas Medical Board allowed a Dallas back surgeon to continue practicing—despite numerous complaints—after two of his patients died and five others were severely injured. Our story led to calls to reform the Medical Board.

—Emily DePrang wrote a two-part series on police brutality and accountability in Houston. Emily’s reporting revealed that HPD almost never disciplines its officers for abuse, and that in a five-year span HPD officers were involved in 550 shootings—the department deemed every single shooting “justified.” That included the killing of a wheelchair-bound mentally ill man with one arm and one leg who was armed with only a pen. The Houston Chronicle, CNN and HuffPost followed up on Emily’s reporting with their own stories about HPD. Thanks to Emily’s ground-breaking reporting, people in Houston are now talking seriously about reform.

—In July, Forrest Wilder discovered that payday loan companies were seeking criminal prosecutions against hundreds of customers simply for being in debt. Forrest’s reporting led the Texas Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, a state agency, to warn payday loan companies that they’re not allowed to threaten borrowers with criminal prosecution.

—And our most widely read story of the year was a moving first-person account by Rachel Pearson, a medical student working at a free clinic in Galveston who has watched her uninsured patients die needlessly from treatable conditions. We titled the piece “Texas’ Other Death Penalty,” because for uninsured people with cancer and other chronic conditions, that’s all our so-called safety net offers: a death sentence. Hundreds of thousands read the piece.Rachel even got a call from the White House about the piece.

That’s just a sampling. For a fuller accounting, check out our best stories of 2013 here.

And more people are reading the Observer than ever before. This year we’ve doubled our web readership from 2012—to 1.2 million unique visitors.

In 2014, we plan to keep breaking big stories, uncovering corruption and injustices, telling stories that others haven’t—or won’t—and bringing you compelling narratives and insightful cultural coverage.

Thank you for reading and supporting the Observer and happy New Year.

What Ted Cruz Really Wants

Ted Cruz
Patrick Michels
Ted Cruz

You’ve got to credit Ted Cruz: The man’s been in elected office less than a year, and he’s already a household name across the country.

With his Ivy League smarts, smarmy condescension and uncompromising ideology, he annoys liberals more than any national politician since perhaps George W. Bush. All of which has made him a hero on the right. He’s making poor Rick Perry seem like old news.

Love him or hate him, Cruz deserves respect for his meteoric rise in national politics. I mean, how many other freshman senators can you name? (Elizabeth Warren doesn’t count.) Up to this point, Cruz’s goal has been clear enough: publicity. He’s been manipulating the media, the grassroots and even his fellow senators to make a name for himself (crusty dolts like John McCain and Barbara Boxer have been especially useful.) At this, he’s proved wildly successful.

But now what? Cruz has made himself known as the tea party standard bearer, the man taking on Obamacare, the wacko bird from Texas. But where is all this leading? What’s his long game? What does Ted Cruz want?

1. He wants to be president.

This goes without saying. Deep down, all politicians in Washington want to be president, don’t they?

But realistically, Cruz isn’t acting like a man with his eye on the White House. He’s alienated Senate colleagues, and made a lot of partisan noise without accomplishing anything of substance. That’s not the profile of a winning presidential candidate. A senator who really wants to be president puts his or her head down, makes allies and passes some legislation with his or her name on it to highlight in a future national campaign. Obama and Hillary both followed that route. Surely Cruz knows this. And yet he’s pursued a scorched-earth approach that won’t look good in a general election.

2. He wants to win the GOP presidential nomination.

Cruz’s tactics may not play well with November voters, but he’s got a shot at the Republican nomination. It’s way too early to start forecasting 2016, but Cruz has certainly put himself in the conversation (he’s polling ahead of Perry among some GOP primary voters).

So maybe Cruz wants to go all Barry Goldwater: win the nomination and get crushed in the general election to further the cause of conservatism.

3. He wants to lead the tea party.

Perhaps he simply wants to be the new face of the tea party—Jim DeMint with charisma. The right-wing grassroots constantly grouse about how their elected leaders betray “conservative values” once in office. Perhaps Cruz is the man who will give national voice to right-wing populism—he used the word “elite” often in his 21-hour pseudo-filibuster—against the corporate leadership of the GOP.

Based on Cruz’s bio, you wouldn’t think him a populist. His establishment credentials are impeccable: Princeton and Harvard, corporate attorney, wife who works at Goldman Sachs. How can a man who, in law school, wouldn’t stoop to study with anyone from “minor Ivies like Penn and Brown” be considered a true populist? The mind reels.

4. There is no plan.

Perhaps there is no long game. Perhaps he’s stumbling forward taking advantage of whatever publicity opportunity arises, any chance to raise his profile and his issues. This seems the likeliest scenario. It certainly fits the facts.

But if Cruz doesn’t have a long game, he probably needs one. Cruz is dominating the national conversation right now. But the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” shtick is fleeting, and the backlash —from Democrats and, especially, fellow Republicans—has already begun.

Observer Story Wins SPJ Award

When Texas Observer staff writer Emily DePrang first met Josh Gravens in early 2012, his life was in shambles.

The 25-year-old husband and father was still suffering for a mistake he had made when he was 12 years old. As Emily would later write in her June 2012 cover story, Life on the List—which yesterday won a national Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists—Josh had sexual contact with his sister when he was 12. “It was never penetrative,” Josh said. “Obviously, it couldn’t have been what they call consensual, but it was playing.”

Emily detailed what happened next: “Josh’s sister told their mother, who was alarmed. She wanted to ensure that, even if Josh’s intentions were only curious, he learned appropriate behavior right away. She called a Christian counseling center near their home in Abilene and described what happened. She was informed that, by law, the center had to report Josh to the police for sexual assault of a child.

“The next day, Josh was arrested and sent into Texas’ juvenile justice system. He wouldn’t get out for three and a half years.”

When he finally did get out, Josh had to register as a sex offender, and his name would appear on the Texas sex offender registry for a decade.

Emily’s story vividly portrays what happens when children are placed on the sex offender list. In Josh’s case, the Texas criminal justice system had treated a kid much like it would treat a serial sex offender. The result is that one incident when he was 12 would continually sabotage his efforts to live a normal life. It followed him through high school and college, where he excelled academically but received death threats when local media did a story on sex offenders. Employers rejected of fired him when they learned his status. When Emily met Josh, he was a married father trying to support his family and start a career.

As Emily wrote, Texas’ sex offender registry had exploded to more than 76,000 names. The huge list makes little distinction between low-level, juvenile offenders like Josh, who a mountain of research shows almost assuredly won’t re-offend, and adult, predatory sex offenders. As Emily reported, the size of the sex offender list is counter-productive, obscuring the truly dangerous sex offenders on a massive list.

This was a difficult subject, one that many reporters wouldn’t have the courage to take on. But Emily did, and she wrote one hell of a story.

When a Texas judge read Emily’s piece, he worked to remove Josh from the sex offender registry. Now, Josh is no longer a registered sex offender. He’s a finalist for a Soros Justice Fellowship to educate lawmakers about the unintended consequences of placing juveniles on public sex offender registries.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Emily’s story helped change Josh’s life. This is impact journalism at its best. And yesterday the Society of Professional Journalists recognized Emily’s work with its Sigma Delta Chi award for Public Service in Magazine Journalism. We hope that the story has raised awareness about the plight of children on the sex offender list. Congratulations to Emily for well-deserved recognition of her work. And we wish Josh luck working to keep other kids from suffering his fate.

Texas’ highest criminal court on Wednesday overturned the arson conviction of Ed Graf who’s served nearly 25 years of a life sentence for a crime he likely didn’t commit.

In a two-page opinion, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the arson evidence used to convict Graf of burning to death his two stepsons in a Waco suburb in August 1986 was flawed. “This false testimony violated [Graf’s] due process rights,” the judges wrote. But while they threw out the original conviction, the judges stopped short of declaring Graf actually innocent. That means he will be sent to the McLennan County jail in late April to wait for county prosecutors to decide if they will seek a new trial or set Graf free. The McLennan County DA’s office released a statement on Wednesday saying it’s still examining the case.

If prosecutors pursue a new trial, they will have to win a conviction without the use of much evidence of arson. Three nationally known fire scientists have examined the Graf case and found no evidence of arson. The prosecutors’ own expert who recently looked at the case also found no indicators of arson.  At a January hearing, fire scientist Doug Carpenter delivered devastating testimony that the fire and toxicology evidence disproved the prosecution’s theory of how Graf set the fire.

Graf was convicted of drugging his 8- and 9-year-old stepsons, dragging them into a shed behind his house in Hewitt, pouring gasoline on the floor, locking the door and setting the shed on fire. The forensic evidence for this scenario has fallen apart. Autopsies found no drugs in the boys’ bodies; there’s no evidence gasoline was poured on the floor, arson experts say the door to the shed must have been open or the fire would have died from lack of oxygen. The other evidence that investigators once thought were indicators of arson has been disproved in the two decades since the fire. As Carpenter testified in January, the high levels of carbon monoxide in the boys’ blood point to an accidental fire, not one intentionally set with gasoline.

The Observer wrote the first in-depth investigation of the Graf case in May 2009, part of a four-part series on flawed arson cases. (Read our original story on Graf’s case here.)

The Graf case is the first Texas arson conviction overturned since the controversy over the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, put to death in 2004 on similarly flawed arson evidence. The Graf case is also being examined by a panel of fire experts reviewing Texas arson cases in partnership with the Texas Innocence Project. The panel will meet in early April when it’s expected to make recommendations on the Graf case. That may help sway prosecutors’ decision on whether to launch a new trial. They can take as long as they want to make a decision. It could still take months or years to win his release.

So while Wednesday’s ruling was undoubtedly welcome news for Graf and the many other Texans still in prison on faulty arson convictions, his attorney remains cautious.

“It’s good news,” said Walter Reaves, who’s been worked to free Graf for more than five years, “but there’s still a long way to go.”

All of us at The Texas Observer were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our friend, supporter and benefactor Mary Margaret Farabee from cancer on Sunday morning.

Like so many organizations and nonprofits in Austin, the Observer benefited greatly from Mary Margaret’s generosity, warmth and energy. Married to former state Sen. Ray Farabee, she was a tireless believer in, and supporter of, the kind of truth-telling journalism that’s been the Observer’s trademark for nearly 60 years. Mary Margaret served on the board of the Texas Democracy Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes the Observer. She was instrumental in creating the MOLLY National Journalism Prize in 2006 to honor journalism in the tradition of the late great Molly Ivins. Proceeds from the award and its annual dinner benefit the Observer. Mary Margaret organized the wildly successful MOLLY dinners—along with Texas Democracy Foundation board Chair Susan Longley—that have featured keynote speeches by noted journalists such as Paul Krugman, Gail Collins and Seymour Hersh.

The Observer was just one of the causes Mary Margaret supported. She co-founded the Texas Book Festival, and, as the Austin American-Statesman noted in its obituary, devoted herself to supporting a long list of Austin organizations, including the Paramount Theater, KLRU, the Ann Richards School for Young Women, the Ransom Center, the Junior League, Friends of the Governor’s Mansion and many, many more.

Mary Margaret was also a great friend. Her visits to the Observer office always brightened our day—whether it was words of encouragement, a little gift to let us know she was thinking of us or just her smiling face coming through the door. Her warmth and generosity of spirit were infectious. We will miss her dearly.

A memorial service for Mary Margaret will be held on March 18 at 10:30 a.m. at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

We will be honoring Mary Margaret more in the coming days. But for now, our feelings on this sad day were summed up best by the marquee outside the Paramount Theater on Congress Avenue that read, “Mary Margaret Farabee: One of Austin’s greatest. We love & will miss you.”

Click here to support The Texas Observer in honor of Mary Margaret.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

After the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, the safety of schoolchildren has become a much-discussed topic everywhere, and Texas is no exception. Texas lawmakers’ ideas for protecting kids at school range from the sensible (restricting military-style assault weapons) to the colossally stupid (arming teachers and other school employees). Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has even suggested the state pay for teachers to take handgun training courses. That’s ironic, given the massive cuts to public education that the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature—Dewhurst included—enacted in 2011 and seems so reluctant to undo. Who knew that the trick to getting schools more state money was teachers taking up arms?

The gun-control debate, at least in Texas, is largely cosmetic. Texas school districts, if they choose to, can already allow teachers to carry guns in the classroom. And hell will freeze over before the Legislature enacts more regulations on firearms, even assault weapons—any new restrictions will have to come from the federal government. The more likely outcome—and the one that concerns us the most—is Texas bulking up its already sizeable number of school cops.

Most Texas schools are patrolled by armed police officers. While they do provide a measure of protection from, say, a mentally ill person armed with an AR-15, the officers principally concern themselves with criminalizing student behavior. In recent years, Texas school cops have doled out alarming numbers of tickets and criminal charges for minor misbehavior such as cursing, disruption of class and, in the case of one 12-year-old in Austin, spraying perfume on herself. Incidents that in years past would land a student in detention or earn a suspension are now resulting in Class C misdemeanor tickets or arrests that send kids to the juvenile justice system.

In 2010, Texas school cops handed out 300,000 Class C misdemeanor tickets to children as young as 6, according to the advocacy group Texas Appleseed. Several recent studies have confirmed that students sent to alternative education programs or the juvenile justice system have an increased chance of dropping out and ending up in prison. Texas Appleseed calls it the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and it’s become a major problem.

Texas has made an industry of criminalizing schoolchildren. While we too fear for the safety of schools, more police officers isn’t the answer. More cops in schools might increase security a bit—but the likely result would be more Texas kids headed to prison.

Ed Graf in 1988. Ed Graf in 1988.
Photo courtesy The Waco Tribune-Herald
Ed Graf in 1988.

A state district judge in Waco on Thursday recommended a new trial for Ed Graf, who has spent nearly 25 years in prison on an arson conviction that forensic experts now say was based on junk science.

Retired Judge George Allen recommended throwing out Graf’s conviction and convening a new trial after a brief hearing this morning to review the well-documented flaws in the forensic evidence. The case now goes before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Graf was convicted in 1988 of allegedly starting the fire that killed his 8- and 9-year-old stepsons in the shed behind the family’s home in a Waco suburb. Graf always claimed he was innocent, and the physical evidence seems to confirm that he’s served a quarter century in prison for an arson that never happened.

Thursday’s hearing, held in a first-floor courtroom in the McLennan County courthouse annex, lasted barely five minutes. Graf’s lawyer Walter Reaves and Assistant District Attorney Alex Bell agreed that the physical evidence used to convict Graf in 1988 was flawed. “Were the case tried today, there is no scientific evidence…of arson,” said Reaves, an innocence attorney who’s been working to exonerate Graf for more than five years. (Graf was one of three flawed arson cases the Observer investigated in 2009. Read our original 2009 story on Graf’s conviction here. You can read other stories in our four-part series on debunked arson evidence here.)

Bell wouldn’t concede Graf’s innocence. The prosecutor pointed to the circumstantial evidence that made Graf appear guilty: He took out life insurance policies on the boys just two months before their deaths; he insisted the boys keep the tags on their new clothes and then returned them for a refund after the fire; he hadn’t bought them more cereal like he usually did. (The circumstantial evidence is the reason that Clare Bradburn, Graf’s ex-wife and the mother of the boys, remains convinced of his guilt, as she told the Waco Herald-Tribune last week.)  But Bell agreed the forensic evidence in the case was problematic and that justice demanded a new trial. “We agree a new trial is appropriate in this instance because of the scientific evidence,” the prosecutor told the court.

Three nationally known fire scientists have reviewed the evidence and found no signs of arson. At a hearing on Jan. 11, fire scientist Doug Carpenter eviscerated the physical evidence against Graf, arguing that fire investigators at the time had misread burn patterns and mistaken an accidental fire for an intentionally set one. Carpenter also testified that the carbon monoxide levels in the boys’ blood proves that the fire wasn’t started with gasoline, as the prosecution claimed in 1988. (Gasoline fires don’t produce the high levels of carbon monoxide found in the boys’ blood. Read our dispatch from the Jan.11 hearing here.) If there was no intentionally set fire, then Graf is, by definition, innocent.

Allen wouldn’t go that far, refusing to recommend a finding of actual innocence, as Reaves had hoped, though a recommendation for a new trial is a significant victory.

Still, Graf, who wasn’t present at Thursday’s hearing, has a long way to go before he might be released from prison. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals—the state’s highest criminal court—will consider Allen’s recommendation and issue a final ruling in the case. Reaves said he was hopeful the Court of Criminal Appeals would free Graf or at the very least grant him a new trial. It seems unlikely there would be another trial. Given the troubling forensic evidence, prosecutors probably couldn’t win another conviction, so if the Court of Criminal Appeals mandates a new trial, then Graf would likely go free. But the Court of Criminal Appeals could take months or years to issue a ruling.

Reaves said he hopes that when the Court of Criminal Appeals does address Graf’s case, it issues a written opinion that would help Texans wrongly convicted of arson win new trials.

Graf’s is the first flawed arson case to go before the Court of Criminal Appeals since the Cameron Todd Willingham controversy. (Willingham was convicted on similarly flawed arson evidence and executed in 2004.) Since the uproar over the blatant mistakes made in the Willingham case, Texas authorities have begun a thorough review of arson convictions in the state. Perhaps dozens of wrongly convicted Texans remain in prison on arson convictions based on evidence that has since been debunked.

“This is the first case that’s made it up through the system,” Reaves said. “It’s very significant.”

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