Freed and still fighting

An interview with Anthony Graves


Laura Brady with Anthony Graves at the CEDP's Lethal Injustice tour stop in Austin, Texas.
By: Laura Brady and Anthony Graves

Anthony Graves spent 18 years in prison in Texas, 12 years of them on death row, for a crime he did not commit.

He was freed when another man confessed to the crime he was convicted of, and it was determined that prosecutors not only withheld evidence favorable to the defense in his 1994 trial, but also elicited false testimony from witnesses. Prosecutors dropped all charges against him, and last year, he became the 138th exonerated death row prisoner since the death penalty was reinstated.

But Anthony’s battle for justice continues. Shamefully, since his release, Anthony has been denied his compensation for wrongful incarceration by the state of Texas. 

According to the Houston Chronicle, “The state comptroller refused to pay Graves the $80,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment provided by law because the order dismissing the capital murder charges did not contain the words ‘actual innocence,’ as the statue requires. Graves has sued [Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott], asking for a declaration of actual innocence, but Abbott’s office said the law does not allow the attorney general to make such a declaration.” Anthony is now suing the state for his compensation.

Since his release, Anthony has been speaking out and says he will dedicate himself to the project of ending capital punishment. He was the keynote speaker at the Austin, Texas, stop of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s national speaking tour “Lethal Injustice: Standing Against the Death Penalty and Harsh Punishment.” Recently, Anthony traveled to Europe to share his story and celebrate his freedom.

Here, Laura Brady interviews Anthony for the New Abolitionist.

Knowing you were innocent, did you ever believe you would be found guilty and experience this nightmare?

I never believed that the system would fail so miserably that an innocent man could be taken from his home and put on death row for a crime he had absolutely no knowledge about.

Texas’ death row is notorious for its deplorable living conditions. How would you describe life at the Polunsky Unit?

Living on Texas’ death row opened my eyes to the fact that not much had changed from the way white slavemasters treated their slaves to the way Texas allows its system to treat its prisoners. It was hell.

You were in a cell next to Kenneth Foster Jr., who won a historic commutation off death row following an international grassroots campaign for his life. What was your reaction upon hearing about his commutation in 2007?

When Kenneth won his commutation, I had already left death row, but I was so happy for my brother because I’d seen how hard he fought to get people to recognize his case and the injustice of the “law of parties.” Kenneth was on death row even though he killed no one, and he was tried alongside Mauricio Brown.

Every man should have the right to defend himself in front of a jury without a co-defendant, because otherwise, it’s difficult for a jury to separate the culpability of each defendant—if any. It was an honor to speak with Mr. Lawrence Foster, Kenneth’s grandfather, at the Austin CEDP tour stop.

You have such a sharp mind and positive glow about you. How did you keep hope alive after so many years, and not let this experience crush you?

Thank you for such kind words, but it wasn’t easy to maintain my sense of self. For me, it was my own naiveté that kept me sane because I just felt that our system doesn’t allow a man to be taken from his home and murdered—even though I had seen over 300 executions take place around me, and I’m sure a few of the men were actually innocent. I just felt that it just couldn’t happen to me, and I stayed in that mindset until I was freed.

The CEDP recently held a panel discussion featuring the families of those on death row titled “When the Whole Family Does Time.” What has this ordeal put your family through?

This terrible ordeal put my family on death row right beside me, especially my mother, because she had to do this time with her son, day after day, and it took a major toll on her health. My children grew up without their father there to help guide them, and to this day, we’re struggling to find that relationship that would allow us to function as father and sons. It simply destroys families.

What words of support would you have for Troy Davis, an innocent man on Georgia’s death row who is fighting for his own life?

Troy, I can honestly say I know what you and your family are going through, but just know that when things get hard and frustration sets in, don’t forget that you’ve done nothing wrong to be put in the position that you are in, and understand that this is bigger than just your case. You are a piece to the puzzle that’s going to help us abolish the death penalty, regardless of what the outcome will be.

You will always have a legacy for standing on principles and what’s right. That’s amazing strength, my brother. Know that your situation is already changing the conversation about the death penalty.

You are not doing this time in vain, my brother. Your courage and strength is making a difference in the debate about the death penalty. I point that out to say that you are being used for a much greater purpose. Always remember that truth when things get rough.

Illinois recently won abolition of the death penalty—do you feel this is possible in Texas?

I absolutely feel that the death penalty will be abolished in Texas, and it’s because whenever I go speak at universities, I see the future sitting in there listening intently and asking common-sense questions. I’m talking about the youth of today that are going to be the decision makers for tomorrow, and they will abolish the death penalty in Texas and around the world. 

What are your life goals with your new freedom?

My life goal now is to help educate the kids of today to ensure that we abolish the death penalty tomorrow, and I won’t stop until we either get there or my casket drops. I’m determined to travel any and everywhere to share my story and my acquired knowledge about this beast that we’ve allowed to threaten our society—also known as the death penalty.

 Any words for those looking to get involved in the fight to abolish the death penalty?

I would just like to say to my brothers and sisters in the struggle and to everyone else looking to get involved: nothing is impossible when you’re determined to make things happen. So don’t ever give up, because we can’t afford to. 

Too many lives are hanging in the balance, and there are more to come should we give up on abolishing this beast we’ve unleashed on our own society. Stay strong, stay encouraged, and remember that a thousand-mile journey has always started with the first step. Let’s not give up or get distracted—let’s keep pushing toward abolishing the death penalty. Peace and blessings to you all.

Go to Anthony’s website at anthonygraves.org to learn more about his case and to donate to help Anthony get settled in his new life.

Join the CEDP efforts to fight the death penalty in Texas—we have chapters in Austin and Denton. To reach the Austin chapter, call 512-494-0667 or e-mail austincedp@nodeathpenalty.org. To reach the Denton chapter, e-mail dentoncedp@nodeathpenalty.org.