Somerville, Texas; 1994. A family was murdered by a man named Robert Earl Carter. Law officials coerced Carter under the pretense of a plea bargain into falsely implicating his acquaintance, Anthony Graves, as his accomplice. Graves was incarcerated for assisting Carter in multiple murders, and subsequently sentenced to death row.

 “[The law officials] caught the guy who did it, and told him, ‘If you tell us who your accomplice was, we will let you go,’ thinking that no one acting alone could kill six people,” Nicole Bremner Casarez, Graves’ attorney, said. 

21 years later today, Graves is a free man. He and Casarez spoke respectively at lectures hosted by Rice University’s Scientia Institute on Nov. 10. The two described how Casarez and her University of St. Thomas journalism students found the truth leading to Graves’ exoneration.

“It was a horrible, horrible crime in which an entire family was killed,” Graves said. “The town wanted justice. The mayor of the town even said, ‘Whoever did this should be caught and hanged.’” 

When Carter gave Graves’ name, the police went immediately to Graves’ house.

“When I asked why [they arrested me], they wouldn’t say,” Graves said. “They asked me my name and then they read me my Miranda rights. I wasn’t panicking because I hadn’t done anything wrong. Then, I was accused of capital murder.”

Graves served over 18 years behind bars, many of which were spent in solitary confinement and on death row. He had two execution dates scheduled and cancelled.

“I didn’t know anything, but the [law officials] didn’t want to hear the truth,” Graves said “They wanted me to tell a lie. It took 6,640 days to get home. I witnessed thousands of deaths, guilty people, mentally ill people, innocent people being executed, deaths where they would execute one man and then clean the table off for the next.”

Many law officials knew of Graves’ innocence yet did nothing.

“Everyone was reading the same boxes but they made the decision to keep kicking the can down the road,” Graves said. 

Graves’ path to freedom began in 2001, when Casarez began teaching an Innocence Investigations with Journalism class at the University of St. Thomas. Students randomly assigned to investigate the case of Anthony Graves examined existing material on the case and obtained an affidavit from Carter’s brother. As a result of the students’ investigation, Graves’ case was overturned in 2006 and he was released in 2010.

Casarez and her students began to see disparities based on race and socioeconomic status in cases they analyzed. Casarez said one in three black Americans goes to jail in their lifetime compared to one in 27 whites and one in 17 Hispanics.

“I’ve been waiting for this [statistic] to change for a long time and it hasn’t,” Casarez said. 

Casarez also views socioeconomic status as an important source of criminal justice inequalities.

“Criminal justice isn’t black or white,” Casarez said. “It’s green. If you can afford good representation, you don’t get sent to death row.”

Graves said he saw these disparities firsthand. 

“All the injustice stems from ignorance, hatred and bigotry,” Graves said. “No one cares about the other person. Everyone wants to win. I was the little man.”

Graves emphasized the importance of the public knowing about justice system inequalities.

“We need a change in our system and we have to be that change,” Graves said. “As is, one day you’ll wake up and say, ‘I know someone who is innocent in prison who is on death row.’”

Graves said he views exercising the right to vote as instrumental in achieving change.

“We can change laws all day long but we have to want the system to work,” Graves said. 

McMurtry College sophomore Anna Thomas said she was struck by Graves’ perspective.

“The most remarkable part was Graves’ persistently positive outlook and determination to make good use of his life since being exonerated,” Thomas said.