Monday, November 1, 2010

Students Helped Free Death Row Inmate

Students Helped Free Death Row Inmate
Updated: Thursday, 28 Oct 2010, 11:33 PM CDT
Published : Thursday, 28 Oct 2010, 11:11 PM CDT


HOUSTON - It took college students getting involved to keep Anthony Graves, now 45, from being wrongly executed.

Graves spent 18 years behind bars, a dozen of them on death row, before being freed Wednesday. A jury convicted Graves of helping Robert Carter brutally murder a grandmother, her teenager daughter and four young grandchildren in 1992. Prosecutors had no physical evidence linking Graves to the crime. Instead they relied on Carter's initial statements that he later repeatedly recanted.

The students were in Nicole Casarez's journalism class at the University of St. Thomas. Students enrolled in the class investigate inmates' claims of innocence through the Innocence Project. Back in 2002, they agreed to take on the Graves case, never knowing it would change their lives.

"It's unfortunate it's taken this long. It's hard for me to believe. It hasn't quite sunk into me that it's true," said Nicole Casarez, UST journalism professor.

"It's actually frustrating we had to get involved. The system should be better than this. It should be better for people," said Gia Gustilo, a former student.

Casarez knew the case was worth looking into from the start.

"For me it was the dying declaration of Robert Carter. Robert Carter before being executed his last words were, 'Anthony Graves had nothing to do with this. I lied on him in court'," she said.

"To actually meet Anthony, you know he's innocent," said Meghan Bingham, a former student.

The team began reviewing trial transcripts and rebuilding the case by talking to witnesses.

"I think the thing that really touched us is when we met Yolanda Mathis. She was Anthony's alibi witness for that night. This is 15 years later, and she's got nothing to gain by this and she says, 'He's innocent and I know he's innocent'," said Bingham.

"That was a big moment for me, too. I'm a mother, and that's what Yolanda said, 'I'm a mother, why would I protect a baby killer'?" said Casarez.

The students uncovered new information about the physical evidence, too.

"We talked to Anthony's boss who actually gave him the knife (prosecutors claimed was used) and he told us how flimsy the knife was, that it was held together with rubber bands and there's no way this knife could have done what prosecutors said it did," said Michael Bingham, a former student.

Graves case was set for retrial in February when the Burleson County District Attorney's office decided to drop all charges.

"I would have loved to have seen Jimmy Phillips and Katherine Scardino (Graves' attorneys) in action and see them kick some people around. On the other hand, I'm delighted I don't have to go through that, and more importantly I'm delighted Anthony doesn't have to go through that," said Casarez.

Casarez feels confident Graves would have been acquitted had the case been retried, but acknowledges there's always a risk with a jury especially when they are asked to decide an emotional case involving murdered children.

Casarez has investigated 15 to 20 other capital and non capital cases. This is the first time one of her investigations has resulted in a release.

"If something like this can happen, then obviously Anthony isn't the only innocent person behind bars. If there's one innocent person, then there needs to be a moratorium on the death penalty," said Michael Bingham.

"It does make you afraid, afraid of what may have happened, what by the grace of God could have happened to Anthony," said Casarez.

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