‘Being A Prisoner During COVID Is A Death Sentence’

Death row exoneree Anthony Graves reflects a decade after his release.


Anthony Graves and Nicole Casarez in 2019.
Anthony Graves and Nicole Casarez in 2019.  Photo courtesy Nicole Casarez

Anthony Graves is perhaps Texas’ most famous death row exoneree. After spending 18 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, he won release in 2010. Under a 2005 Texas law, Graves also had to fight to be pardoned, or ruled to be “actually innocent,” to receive compensation. Since then, he has become an author, an internationally known human rights advocate, and the founder of a foundation that helps others who have been wrongfully incarcerated.

Graves reflected on his experiences and on the innocence movement in Texas along with Nicole Casarez, the Houston attorney whose work helped exonerate him 10 years ago.

Texas Observer: Since you got off death row, you’ve accomplished a lot, from filing a bar grievance against Charles Sebesta, the district attorney who prosecuted you, to writing a book, to starting a foundation. Where are you in the process of rebuilding your life?

Graves: It’s been a journey and it’s still a journey. I can never get back what they took from me. Ten years. It’s just mind boggling to think it’s been 10 years, when I can remember clearly when I was in shackles and handcuffs and I didn’t know whether I was going to be executed for a crime I knew absolutely nothing about, or if I was going to live and to have Nicole [Casarez] there with me going through these ups and downs through this whole rollercoaster of justice. It was a crazy ride. And 10 years later, I’m out here making a difference. My life is amazing now. Looking back on all of it I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing to get to where I am today. It’s given me a lot of purpose in my life.

I think many people have been inspired by your story. But today, the Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals remains controlled by judicial conservatives who don’t seem to want to recognize that anyone who’s been exonerated is “actually innocent,” the step required under state law to be awarded compensation for wrongful imprisonment. Lydell Grant, for example,  spent years in prison for a murder he did not commit, before he was exonerated by DNA evidence and granted bond in 2019. But his claim of actual innocence remains stalled in the courts. Are you concerned about those in actual innocence limbo?

Casarez: I’m aware of the Lydell Grant case. That case has a lot of things about it that are concerning. I think there’s DNA evidence that is conclusive in proving innocence in his case, but there were some eyewitnesses who testified [against him]. We know—and I think we’ve known for more than 100 years—how poor eyewitnesses are at identifying perpetrators. So, we take science on one hand and then something that we say is very flawed—eyewitness testimony—and then judges say: “Well we can’t be sure.”

Graves: Alfred Dwayne Brown, another death row exoneree, also is still fighting for compensation and he’s already been proven innocent. The DA has also basically said he was innocent, and yet he’s still fighting with the court (CCA) to get compensated. The fight never stops.

What accomplishment are you most proud of in your fight for justice?

Graves: I think one of the proudest accomplishments was filing a grievance against Charles Sebesta and having him disbarred. Not because it was a personal vendetta, but because it gave hope to so many people in my situation who thought they could never get justice. I gave hope to people who sought that type of justice against one man who abused his power to put someone away for something he did not do.

I‘m also proud I was able to help Alfred Dwayne Brown come home, by going to speak with a witness who was terrified to come forward because of threats that had been made. And I’m also proud that by sharing my story I’ve been putting a face on this system and its need for reform by sharing my story across the globe.

You’ve advocated for the release of death row inmates. Are you still working on any other death row cases?

Graves: Yes. There also are other cases where young men were actually innocent–and some of them have already been executed.

I ran into other cases on death row where there should have been lesser included offenses, other than capital murder. But because of poor representation they received the death penalty.

There are others where, because of mitigating factors, they shouldn’t be on death row and yet they are. I ran across cases where men had mitigating factors from growing up eating out of trash cans and not knowing how to read or write, but they didn’t have good representation and mitigating factors were not considered. I met men who were mentally ill and should have been in some other facility but ended up on death row.

There is at least one Houstonian, Darius Duron Elam, who’s now serving a life sentence and claims innocence. A recent DNA test on evidence excluded or exonerated him in the aggravated robbery case, his supporters say, but he remains in prison awaiting a Harris County court date delayed by COVID-19. How is COVID-19 affecting the progress of cases you’ve followed or are working on as advocates? 

Casarez: You’d think you’d want to fast track potential releases—especially when there are innocence claims. Sometimes, the state doesn’t seem to care that a person has been exonerated—there are still people who think they’re guilty and so they use whatever they can use to keep them in prison. They feel they’re doing a service to society by keeping them locked up.

Graves: Being a prisoner during COVID is a death sentence in itself. [More than] 190 people have died in TDCJ. You have a system that refuses to admit its mistakes. They want to cover up, they want to deny. It’s not just one prosecutor—you have prosecutors who want to deny, deny, deny, and let the court figure it out. The game is to deny. I think the change is coming from people on the streets and being better aware of what’s going on in the criminal justice system. More awareness is going to come from more people demanding change

Anthony, you wrote eloquently of your time on death row in your book, Infinite Hope. Is there more you want to write or do now?

Graves: I’ve thought about writing another book. My first focused on my life on death row and how I overcame it. Now there’s a chapter on my life that I’m doing all this advocacy wor trying to put a face on the death penalty, to let people know that this is the man that you tried to murder. But now I’m looking to do a movie. To cap it off, I’ve just agreed to go work for the public defender’s office in Harris County. I think I’ll be the first exoneree to work in a public defender’s office. So, this thing has come full circle. I’ve gone from being wrongfully convicted to working at the PD’s office. I’ll be a community liaison communicating with families and inmates and giving them a better understanding of what they’re dealing with and walking them through the whole process.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Read more from the Observer: