Mistakes condemn death penalty

November 7, 2010


A few days ago, Anthony Graves called his mother and asked what she was cooking for dinner. She asked why he wanted to know. He said, “Because I’m coming home.”

Maybe it sounds like an unremarkable exchange. But Anthony Graves had spent 18 years behind bars, 12 of them on death row, for the 1992 murder of an entire family, including four young children, in the Texas town of Somerville. It wasn’t until that day, Oct. 27, that the district attorney’s office finally accepted what he’d been saying for almost two decades: He is innocent.

So the news that Graves would be home for dinner was the very antithesis of unremarkable. His mother, he told a news conference the next day, couldn’t believe it. “I couldn’t believe I was saying it,” he added.

Graves’ release came after his story appeared in Texas Monthly magazine (www.texasmonthly .com). The article by Pamela Colloff detailed how he was convicted even though no physical evidence tied him to the crime, even though he had no motive to kill six strangers, even though three witnesses testified he was home at the time of the slaughter.

The case against Graves rested entirely upon jailhouse denizens who claimed they’d heard him confess and upon one Robert Carter, who admitted committing the crime, but initially blamed Graves. Carter, executed in 2000, recanted that claim repeatedly, most notably to District Attorney Charles Sebesta the day before Sebesta put him on the stand to testify against Graves. Defense attorneys say Sebesta never shared that exculpatory tidbit with them, even though he was required to do so.

Colloff’s story drew outraged media attention, including from yours truly. But the attention that mattered was that of the current DA, Bill Parham, who undertook his own investigation. He was unequivocal in explaining his decision to drop the charges. “There’s not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case,” he said. “There is nothing.”

One hopes people who love the death penalty are taking note. So often, their arguments in favor of that barbarous frontier relic seem to take place in some alternate universe where cops never fabricate evidence and judges never make mistakes, where lawyers are never inept and witnesses never commit perjury. So often, they behave as if in this one critical endeavor, unlike in every other endeavor they undertake, human beings somehow get it right every time.

I would not have convicted Anthony Graves of a traffic violation on the sort of evidence Sebesta offered. Yet somehow, a jury in Texas convicted him of murder and sent him off to die.

When you pin them on it, people who love the death penalty often retreat into sophistic nonsense. Don’t end the death penalty, someone once told me, just enact safeguards to ensure the innocent are never sentenced to die.

Yeah, right. Show me the safeguard that guarantees perfection.

Those who propose to tinker with the death penalty until it is foolproof remind me of the addict attempting to negotiate with his addiction, desperately proffering minor concessions that will allow him to continue indulging in this thing that is killing him.

But there comes a day when you simply have to kick the habit.

As a nation, we are stubbornly addicted to the death penalty, strung out on exacting retribution and calling it justice. Even though we know innocent men and women have surely died as a result.

Or, like Anthony Graves, been robbed of irreplaceable years. He was 26 when he was arrested. He is 45 now. When he made that call home to his mother, he borrowed his lawyer’s cell phone.

The lawyer had to show him how to use it.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday www.MiamiHerald.com. lpitts@miamiherald.com


Eybea Opiner 7 years, 6 months ago

I am not opposed to the death penalty, but would support it only when irrefutable DNA or video evidence proved guilt.

Whatever is done about the death penalty won't stop innocent people being convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

"Whatever is done about the death penalty won't stop innocent people being convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison."

True, but if they are merely in prison, at least the wrong can be partially made right.

parrothead8 7 years, 6 months ago

What's partially right about an innocent person in prison?

jafs 7 years, 6 months ago

That's not what he said.

He said the wrong could be "partially made right" - by letting them out (which you can't do if they're dead), and compensating them for the time lost.

Frank Smith 7 years, 6 months ago

Any societal measure that cheapens life cheapens it for all of us.

Ritual executions have no other purpose than to satisfy a blood lust and desire for revenge. It is immensely more expensive to put someone to death than to put them in prison for life.

Living in a maximum security prison for 40 or 50 years is a horror to whom only Dante could do justice. Taking someone's life actually would spare them from that.

Defendants have been put to death based entirely on perjured testimony, overzealous police, dishonest prosecutors, inadequate representation of counsel and a host of other factors. Many innocent persons have been freed only because of technology developed long after their convictions.

There's an example right here in Kansas. James Richardson of Rose Hill spent years on Florida's Death Row before Furman v. Georgia voided all death penalty sentences almost 40 years ago. He was convicted of killing his seven children by poison. The prime suspect should have been the children's babysitter. With his sentence commuted he eventually spent 21 years in prison before he was finally exonerated. By then the babysittter had apparently poisoned two of her husbands as well.

How can a man be compensated for such a loss? How could he be compensated for the agony of being thought to have killed his children for more than two decades? He would have died in prison, but for Bob Galacia, a Wichita heart surgeon who traveled there to perform surgery for free to save his life.

This was a decent man who never had a bad word said about him until the accusations and conviction. His wife understandably left him as he moldered in jail.

Interestingly, the state of Florida has funded compensation for victims of such railroading. If he is still alive, he is 74 now, but last year had filed a claim for the million dollars due him for this "legal lynching."


FL: James Richardson will test new Florida law Sun Jul 19, 2009 WRONGFUL IMPRISONMENT | COMPENSATION Ex-prisoner' s request for compensation will test new Florida law

For the first time, a wrongfully incarcerated person called upon a 2008 statute that would require the state to pay him more than $1 million. BY BRITTANY LEVINE BLEVINE@MIAMIHERALD .COM

Convicted of poisoning his seven children, field worker James Richardson spent two decades in prison -- including five on Florida's Death Row -- before Miami-Dade's top prosecutor found he did not receive a fair trial, and set him free in 1989.

On Friday, Richardson, 73, asked the state to compensate him for his lost years behind bars.

oldvet 7 years, 6 months ago

"Even though we know innocent men and women have surely died as a result."

I believe that there is zero proof of this statement since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-70's. The lengthy appeals processes, along with new technologies, have eliminated this.

oldvet 7 years, 6 months ago

Thanks for the links... the first has nothing to do with the death penalty, the second still offers zero proof of innocence and relies on testimony that may have changed, suppositions, and new people offering information that may be unfounded and certainly was not presented earlier... Even the web site says "possibly innocent"...

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

So in your view, if anyone is charged with and convicted of murder, no matter how flimsy the evidence, they should be executed. Is that about right?

Cait McKnelly 7 years, 6 months ago

I am an anomaly; a "loony lefty" (an appendage I'm rather proud of) who is fully in favor of the death penalty. I have personal reasons for that opinion. In 1970 I was brutally assaulted and came close to being murdered by a man and his cohort of three others. To this day I still don't know why they chose to let me live as there was talk during the assault of hanging me. In 1978, after a string of other brutal sexual assaults, this man and his cohort did kill a woman. He was convicted of sexual assault and murder in the course of the rape and was sentenced to be executed. Eleven years after the murder, in 1989, after numerous appeals, he was executed by lethal injection, the first execution in Missouri since 1965. It is my opinion that there are people who walk this earth who are not "human". They are animals, and not just animals but vicious animals, who, loosed upon the normal human population, derive pleasure from causing great pain and suffering. They have no conscience and no concept of empathy or compassion for human suffering. As an example, during the course of the 1978 murder, as the murderer and his "friends" were torturing the victim in an upstairs bedroom, his own nine year old daughter was sitting in the kitchen, terrified out of her mind, listening to the screams of the victim and attempting to do homework as her own father was in the room overhead repeatedly raping and assaulting the woman. These are people for whom execution is an act of putting down a terminally ill animal. Their very actions have removed them from the human race and by those actions they have given up the very right to be called human. The night that this man was executed I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Not because I felt any further threat from him but because he could no longer ever be in any position again, through parole or other means, to torture another person again. I felt that as long as this man was alive he would find a way to do so, even from deep within a prison. He was just that evil and just that much of an animal. Therefore, before making judgments about the death penalty, I urge you to listen to the victims; the families of the murdered and even the living who bear scars from these people. Remorse is not enough even if they say they are remorseful. Why? Because by their very actions they have proven they don't even know how to feel remorse.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

I'm sorry that you endured such a horrible ordeal. But I have a question. Are you in favor of pre-emptive capital punishment? Surely someone knew that this guy was a monster even before he attacked you.

jafs 7 years, 6 months ago

Very sorry to hear that.

But it sounds like a bit of a miracle that you weren't killed - maybe a small silver lining?

Making sure you've got the right person is the most important critique of the death penalty - given the many mistakes our system makes.

Whether or not it's a reasonable "punishment" is a bit secondary.

Personally, I'd like it if our system worked more along the lines of prevention and rehabilitation when possible, rather than punishment after the fact. Someone who's lost a loved one will never get them back, regardless of what's done to the murderer.

Just my two cents.

equalaccessprivacy 7 years, 6 months ago

I understand you have experienced huge trauma and pain, but eye-for-an-eye justice just makes the state and the victims as morally repugnant as the original perpetrator. How dare mere human beings try to play God? They are make huge and very evil errors trying to do so.

Blessings, but no revenge for you!

Cait McKnelly 7 years, 6 months ago

I am not speaking of "eye for eye" justice. In fact I feel you have deliberately misinterpreted my words (or just simply didn't listen when you read them). I believe in the death penalty as a humane way of removing people from society that do not belong there. They have given up their right to even be called "human". What do you do with a rabid dog?

"Blessings, but no revenge for you!" I found this insulting and condescending; an attempt to further victimize a victim. At the very least it was without taste or sensitivity and it makes me call into question your true motives for being "anti capital punishment".

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 6 months ago

"How many innocent victims being executed is (a) fair price for capitol punishment."

If you read cait48's response closely, you'll notice that in Missouri, there were no executions between 1965 and 1989. That's 24 years between executions in Missouri, and that's quite a while. And, the 2008 population estimate for Missouri is 5,911,605.

So statistically, the incidence of executions in Missouri in any given year is one in (24 x 5,911,605) = 141,878,520. An interesting coincidence is that is just about half the population of the entire USA. Note that is not the number of executions of innocent people, that is the total number of excutions in Missouri. And I'm quite sure most of them were guilty!

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths occur in the USA every year. Over a period of 24 years, the number of preventable deaths is many millions. Car accidents in the USA, just for one cause of preventable deaths, claim about 43,000 lives each year. So, over that period of time, 24 years x 43,000 deaths = 1,032,000, well over a million. Therefore, the chances of an innocent person dying in that 24 years in a car accident is one in only 300. For some reason, that one in only 300 doesn't seem to mean much to most people, because it happens so often.

I am reminded of a quote by Joseph Stalin: "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a stastic." There are not to many times in history where that statement is as true as this one. Worried about one innocent person's death? And not worry about literally over a million deaths?

So, over a million deaths have occured over the last 24 years in car accidents, and very, very few executions of innocent people have occured over that period of time. And, car accidents are just one example of preventable deaths.

Sure, there should be safeguards to prevent innocent people from being executed, but I believe that the probability of that happening is very low. There aren't any firm numbers for how often it occurs, but obviously the chances of any innocent American being executed is in the hundreds of millions to one, considering how few executions actually occur.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

I could stand out in the front yard, once a day, and unload a few dozen rounds straight up in the air, and it's very possible no one would ever be injured. So I just can't understand why that's illegal.

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 6 months ago

Because you would scare the dogs, that's why!

equalaccessprivacy 7 years, 6 months ago

Smart thinking! I always find it difficult to believe how easily our society shrugs off so many traffic-accident deaths. Personally, I hardly believe cars are innocuous--obviously they cause enormous environmental devastation ---besides killing and maiming people.

The element of "intention" is a big factor in capital punishment and ironically also in determining guilt for a crime.

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 6 months ago

For the stats? I beat the reaper a couple times by wearing my seat belt.

If it was just me, it would be a tragedy, since "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." - J.S.

I think that the time on death row would be the worst. The average time spent on death row before execution is eleven years, due to the lengthy appeals process.

Butterflies 7 years, 6 months ago

This is why I think it was wrong for Oklahoma to vote against Sharia Law. Using Sharia's prosecuting method to put someone to death makes perfect sense.

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 6 months ago

Sharia Law method of execution:

Burying an adulterous woman (or other criminal) in sand up to her neck, and then throwing stones at her head until all that's left is a bloody pulp.

Ther only thing required for the exection to be carried out is the testimony of three or four Muslim men. The testimony of women, Jews, Christians or of any other faith besides Muslim counts for nothing, and there is no appeal. The stoning takes place very quickly after conviction.

That does not make perfect sense to me!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

There are many similar punishments outlined in the Bible.

But even if Sharia Law were to be considered by US Courts (in dealing with consenting Muslims) no punishment could be carried out if it violated US or state laws.

Ron Holzwarth 7 years, 6 months ago

Such punishments are spoken of in the Tanakh (Old Testament to you, although the books are in a different order) but have been refuted as irrelevant in our modern times in the Talmud, which outlines Jewish Law, and was completed about the year 500 AD. Although, there was some later editing.

The death penalty and amputations are illegal in Israel, but in many Muslim nations, stoning to death and hand amputations still take place for offences that are considered quite minor in the USA.

voevoda 7 years, 6 months ago

Most Muslim countries do not follow Sharia law blindly, any more than the English-speaking world follows English common law blindly, or continental Europe follows Roman law blindly. Sharia, like Talmud, can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways. Our media tends to focus on the most outrageous examples in benighted states, rather than on other countries, which interpret Islamic teachings in the progressive manner of American Muslims. Condemning Sharia is like condemning Talmud or condemning Roman Catholic canon law; it's a way to cast aspersions on adherents of a faith as a group. Pseudo-academic condemnations of Jewish teachings presaged the Holocaust in central Europe. We need to be more thoughtful and cautious, and not create a false version of Sharia and then condemn Muslims on it basis.

Abdu Omar 7 years, 6 months ago

Ron, that is not true. If you are an expert on Islam you would know that! If a person, man or woman, is convicted of adultery they are to receive 100 lashes if and only if, there are 4 eye witnesses sworn. They must do this only if the man or woman does not beg for forgiveness and serve pennence. So no one gets stoined to death by Shariah law, but some do by the laws of the country. Read Quran and you will see.

equalaccessprivacy 7 years, 6 months ago

According to a recent Amnesty International report 139 men on death row have been exonerated since DNA evidence became available: http://blog.amnestyusa.org/deathpenalty/scent-lineup-not-necessary-as-texas-prosecutors-declare-anthony-graves-innocent/

That's way too many mistakes for a civilized person to rationalize. Capital murder degrades the state even more than it does the sometimes falsely accused criminal. Inhuman or vicious conduct does not excuse equally heinous and despicable punishment."Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord."

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