Innocent on death row: The day I got the call that set me free

After going through hell in solitary confinement, I got to say, "I'm coming home, Momma"

Published January 27, 2018 7:30PM (EST)

Anthony Graves (Gerald Seroy)
Anthony Graves (Gerald Seroy)

Excerpted from "Infinite Hope: How Wrongful Conviction, Solitary Confinement, and 12 Years on Death Row Failed to Kill My Soul" by Anthony Graves (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

The cell was cold and familiar. I’d been back in Burleson County Jail for more than four years by then, waiting for the resolution of a nightmare I’d thought was over. Bisecting the cell was a long metal table that in another world might have been a picnic table covered with greasy goodies from some well-tended grill. It was hard to imagine this table filled with friends and family, though. I had none in Burleson. I was a “danger” to the hardened inmate population, or so the state said.

Solitary is where they put someone charged with a capital offense, and I was the only capital inmate Burleson had, so it was me alone in solitary, and the double isolation made it worse. The cell was big enough to house four inmates; it was like a big empty warehouse. I felt isolated not only because of my physical surroundings, but because I didn’t know anyone in Burleson, and it was obvious that everyone in the jail had been instructed not to talk to me. I was the death row inmate, the branding that had determined so much about the quality of my life for years. It was like being a celebrity of the wrong kind, for all the wrong reasons, and all eyes looking at me knew my infamous status. The feeling of being constantly judged was an extra layer of punishment in the midst of an already unthinkable situation: I was on track to be executed by the State of Texas for a crime I knew nothing about and did not commit.

My jail cell was secluded and also cold—so cold that I walked around wrapped in my blanket every day to keep my body temperature up. I talked my thoughts out loud just to hear my own voice. When an officer would come to my cell, I would try to engage him or her in conversation just to interact with another human being. Some would stay and talk for a while, but not often. People never understand how truly important human contact is until it is taken away. I had no human contact. The windows had blinds on them from the outside so that I couldn’t look out into the hallway, but someone in the hallway could open the blinds at any time and look in at me. A toilet and shower sat behind a spare metal partition, giving the illusion of privacy. But it was only an illusion. I felt like a creature on display. That is something that is taken for granted on the outside: the expectation of being treated decently.

Of the two sets of steel bunk beds up against the back wall, the bed at the bottom right was the only one covered with a thin plastic mattress. They didn’t issue pillows so I ended up balling my clothes and sleeping with them under my head instead. A pay phone hung along the side of the wall beside the seatless toilet bowl. I could use the phone to make collect calls to my family, but the calls were exorbitantly expensive. The color of the cell was light gray, with food stains and small graffiti covering the walls. The whole place smelled mildewy and just plain foul.

A television sat on top of a stand that was mounted on the wall. I could watch the local news and shows that came on the basic channels. Silence had become my worst enemy.

I was only existing in life, waiting for my fate to be determined by other people. There was nothing to do, no obvious way to become engaged in anything. The hours of nothing interrupted by monotonous routine can literally drive a man insane.

I was desperate for human contact. I needed help and to feel the power of being connected to something larger than myself. That was the danger I had sensed from the very beginning. Not the physical kind; this was mental. I was balanced on the razor’s edge, and it wouldn’t take much to push me into not caring about myself anymore. I knew that if that happened, I would simply be killed by the state, my life eliminated before I had the chance to grow into a person with something to contribute to the world. I hadn’t quite discovered that self yet. I didn’t want to die before I had the chance.

In order to survive, I distracted myself from my immediate surroundings by withdrawing inward, which is not my natural disposition—but then, these were unusual times. By going inside myself, I escaped the smell, the awful toneless grays encircling me, the chill of the steel, the lack of humanity. I learned to be a community of one. I could only control the tiniest elements of my existence. And so I’d turned to letter writing as a way to lift the suffocating walls of isolation, one bit of communication at a time.

The metal table was bolted to the concrete floor, with steel benches on either side, and seated on one of these benches is where I found myself most of the day. I wrote countless letters at this table. I wrote letters to family, friends, and my attorneys. I wrote to remind people that I needed their help in saving my life. I had developed relationships with people as far away as Paris, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Africa, and Norway. These people had written to me while I was on death row, and some had even come to visit me. They ended up becoming my extended family. They stood with me for years and fought the good fi ght. I don’t know what would have happened to my mental state if it hadn’t been for all the love and support that my European allies showed me. At the start, I didn’t realize how vital that support would be.

From the moment of my arrest on a charge of multiple homicide, I’d maintained my innocence, refusing to believe the justice system would fail me, that the state could actually kill me for a crime I did not commit. There were others who agreed, most recently Pamela Colloff of Texas Monthly magazine, who had written a moving exposé on my case.

On this day, I sat at my metal writing table, responding to a letter Pamela had written me requesting information for a follow-up article she was preparing about my case. “They’re either going to have to kill me or set me free,” I wrote. “But if they kill me, the whole world’s gonna know that Texas pumped poison in the veins of an innocent man.”

I was three-quarters of the way through this letter, scribbling desperate words, when a guard approached my cell.

“Graves, come on,” the voice boomed, his words echoing off the cell walls. “I’ve got orders to bring you out.”

I was immediately on alert. This was jail, of course, where inmates don’t exactly come and go for any old reason. I had learned by then that some officers weren’t to be trusted.

“Can you tell me where we’re going?” I asked, but the officer gave no explanation. It didn’t feel right. He seemed to be withholding information, and I knew from all my time on death row that being brought to the front offices was a big deal: something either very good or very bad had happened. I hadn’t heard from my attorneys that day, but I knew there was ongoing activity concerning my case.

“I’m not going anywhere without my attorneys,” I said, letting the guard know that after years of being jerked around in the system, I knew good and well that Gideon v. Wainwright entitled me to counsel. My nervousness grew as we turned the corner and came to a large steel door with the words interrogation room written across the top.

Sensing my discomfort, the officer dispensed with whatever game he’d been playing. I would later find out that he knew the news I was about to receive, and he was just as nervous as I was. He opened the door quickly, revealing two members of my legal team, Nicole Cásarez and Jimmy Phillips Jr., and another officer, Sergeant Kuhn.

Nicole had been a great champion of justice in my case. In a search for more meaningful work, she’d given up a corporate legal career to become a journalism teacher at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. In 2002, she and her students heard about my case during a visit from David Dow, a University of Houston Law Center professor and founder of the Texas Innocence Network, the state’s oldest innocence project. Nicole and her students had immediately volunteered to help with my case, and took on the role with gusto. In 2006, she became an official member of my legal team. Now, she looked as though she was holding back tears when she asked me how I was doing.

“I’m fine, Nicole. What’s going on?” I knew that if I was going to get answers from anyone, it would be from her.

“Do you remember how you told me that God was good, when you were trying to lift my spirits about all of this?” she asked.

Of course I remembered saying those words, I told her; after all, holding tight to that belief had gotten me through some dark times on death row when I thought that the State of Texas might just succeed in killing me. “You’re going home, Anthony,” Nicole said, her eyes growing wider as she spoke. “Siegler just dropped all the charges, and not only that, but she’s willing to tell the world that you’re actually innocent of this crime.”

I didn’t know what to say or do. I had just gotten the news that I had fought for, without letup, for nearly two decades. I’d gone into that room with my sword and my shield, my defenses up and ready to fi ght, but it appeared that the battle was already won. I thought for a brief moment that my lawyers might have misunderstood the prosecutor, Kelly Siegler, or that I might have misheard Nicole when she relayed the news. I had seen plenty of men pulled out of prison and put right back in when one court or another decided to reinstate, or allow reprosecution of, their cases. I had seen the courts take them on an emotional roller-coaster ride, their freedom dangled precariously in front of them before the state ripped away their last remaining hope. My own hopes had been dashed time and again. I feared that if I let myself believe the news was real this time, I might not be able to recover if justice was once again snatched from my tired fingers.

But then Sergeant Kuhn confirmed what Nicole had been saying. “Graves, do you want to go get your property?”

As the sergeant and I began to walk down the quiet hallway, it started to dawn on me: it’s over. Several minutes later, a forty-five-year-old man with only a small box of possessions to my name—a few books, the legal papers that had helped me win my freedom, the photographs that were all I’d had of home—walked out of the living nightmare that had consumed my entire being for so long and into a new life that I hadn’t prepared myself to start living. I had just made commissary, but getting my hands on that pittance of money would take time I wasn’t prepared to give. “I want to get out of here before they change their damn minds,” I said.

Once outside the jail, I embraced my lawyers and tasted the sweetness of freedom for the first time since a Brenham police officer had arrested me more than eighteen years before.

For all the years the wheels of justice had churned so slowly in my case, now there had hardly been time to make arrangements concerning my release. Even Nicole hadn’t let herself believe the state was serious about dropping the charges until she’d got to the jail. Like me, she’d wanted to get the release process over with as quickly as possible. There was no ceremonial proceeding with a judge admonishing the state or apologizing for the system’s treatment of me, nor were there any local news teams there to cover my release. It was only by pure coincidence that a crew from CBS’s "48 Hours" was visiting that day, filming a documentary on my innocence claim.

I had only one thing on my mind as I prepared to get in the car and leave behind 6,640 days of pure hell in those jail cells. Richard Schlesinger, the reporter from "48 Hours," looked at me and knew just what that was.

“Anthony, does your mom know?” he asked. It had all happened so fast that Momma had yet to hear the news.

“How about we call her?”

Nicole dialed the number and handed me a smartphone, an alien device developed and redeveloped many times over during the time I’d been locked up.

“Hello, Momma,” I said as I prepared to ask her the question I had asked at the conclusion of every one of my conversations with her from jail. “What you cooking tonight?”

She wasn’t used to getting a call from Nicole and then having my voice come on the line. She started to answer, but I had to interrupt her, the gravity of my words hitting me: “Well, that’s good. Because I’m coming home, Momma.”

* * *

The ACLU and the Abolitionist Law Center recently filed a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania to end mandatory and permanent solitary confinement for prisoners sentenced to death. Because of his many years suffering the horrors of  solitary confinement, Anthony Graves is serving as a spokesperson for the suit. 

By Anthony Graves

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