Pamela Colloff Wins October Sidney for Investigation into the Case of Anthony Graves
NEW YORK: The Sidney Hillman Foundation announced today that Pamela Colloff has won the October Sidney Award for her extraordinary investigation in October’s Texas Monthlyinto the case of Anthony Graves, a man who was wrongly accused of brutally murdering a family of six, and spent eighteen years behind bars as a result.
Colloff’s story begins:
“Since August 23, 1992, Anthony Graves has been behind bars for the gruesome murder of a family in Somerville. There was no clear motive, no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, and the only witness against him recanted, declaring again and again before his death, in 2000, that Graves didn’t do it. If he didn’t, the truth will come out. Won’t it?”
Incredibly, the truth did come out, almost as soon as Colloff’s story appeared. Exactly one month after publication, District Attorney Bill Parham announced: “There’s not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case. There is nothing.” At Parham’s request, State District Judge Reva Towslee-Corbett signed a motion declaring, “We have found no credible evidence which inculpates this defendant.”
In a follow-up story, Colloff described what happened next: “Anthony Graves was in the middle of writing a letter on Wednesday afternoon when a guard at the Burleson County jail appeared outside his cell. Without explanation, the guard unlocked Graves’s cell and ordered the 45-year-old inmate to follow him. ‘I didn’t have any idea what was going on,’ Graves told [Colloff] yesterday. ‘I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t putting handcuffs on me.’ ”
Bewildered, Graves was led to a part of the jail that he had never seen before. There, one of his attorneys, Nicole Cásarez—a journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, who has spent the past eight years investigating his case—was waiting for him. ‘God is good,’ she told Graves. ‘It’s over. It’s finally over.’ ”
Graves had been off of death row but still in jail awaiting a new trial, ever since a three- judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had thrown out his original conviction four and a half years ago, after issuing a sharp rebuke of the original district attorney who had prosecuted the case.
Sidney Award Judge Charles Kaiser said, “Colloff’s superb 14,000 word article is a meticulous reconstruction of an outrageous miscarriage of justice. The fact that it took the district attorney only four weeks to conclude that the reporter had gotten everything right is an extraordinary testament to the talents of a great reporter—and to the enduring power of the press. ”
The award-winning piece was the third longest article ever published by the Texas Monthly.
Colloff has been a staff writer for the magazine since 1997. An article she wrote about school prayer in 2001 was nominated for a National Magazine Award. Her work has also appeared in The New Yorker. Her articles have been anthologized in the 2008 and 2007 editions of “Best American Crime Reporting” and the 2006 edition of “Best American Sports Writing.” She has a B.A. in English literature from Brown University and she grew up in New York City. Colloff lives in Austin with her husband, Chad Nichols, and their three-year-old son.
Pamela Colloff discusses her story about Anthony Graves, who served eighteen years in prison in Texas for a murder he did not commit.
1.) Why did you decide to look into the case of Anthony Graves?
Graves’s conviction was overturned by a federal court in 2006. That’s unusual, and so I became interested in finding out more, particularly because it was a death penalty case. Graves was not released after his conviction was overturned; the original charges against him still stood, so he was transferred from death row to the Burleson County jail in Caldwell, Texas, to await retrial. I read up on his case, and my initial plan was to cover his retrial. But years passed, and his case never went to trial. By this spring, he had been sitting in the county jail for four years, so I began looking more deeply into his case.
2.) What surprised you as you did your research?
Graves had no motive. No physical evidence connected him to the crime. The only eyewitness who could place him at the scene of the murders was the crime’s prime suspect, Robert Carter, who later recanted his statements about Graves. It was hard to believe that anyone could be sent to death row based on the “evidence” in this case.
I began by reading through the entire case file, which took a while, since the case is eighteen years old. Then I interviewed people, including witnesses who had testified at
trial or who had talked to investigators shortly after this crime was committed. What was astonishing was that the more I looked at the case, the less sense it made.
The fact that Graves had nothing to do with this crime was only confirmed by the work of Nicole Casarez, who took an interest in his case in 2002. She had amassed an incredible amount of information on the case. She and her students at the University of St. Thomas in Houston had done a staggering amount of work. They never found a shred of evidence that led them to believe that Graves had any involvement whatsoever in this crime.
3.) What has the response been since you published it?
The article generated a lot of media coverage, particularly in Texas, and helped focus attention on Graves’s case. Incredibly, on October 27th, Burleson County district attorney Bill Parham dropped all charges and Graves was released from jail.
This fall, Parham and his special prosecutor, Kelly Siegler, re-investigated the case. They came to the same conclusion that Casarez came to, and then I came to: Graves was innocent. Parham was clear that he was not dropping charges because too many witnesses had died or because the evidence had become degraded. “There’s not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case,” he told reporters. “There is nothing.”
4.) Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piece but could not?
Unless you sit and read the entire case file, it’s hard to grasp just how many bad actors there were in this case, or just how many times Graves was failed by the criminal justice system, all the way up through the appellate courts. I wish I could have included more of the court rulings in my article, but I was not writing a book. I also wish that I could
have written about Graves’s time on death row more extensively so that people could understand exactly how awful the past eighteen years of his life have been.
5.) Do you expect the outcome of this case to have any effect on the criminal justice system in Texas?
Days after charges were dropped, Governor Rick Perry commented that Graves’s release showed that “the system is working.” No commission has been set up to examine what went wrong in this case, and as far as I know, no legislation has been drafted that would rectify some of the systemic problems that contributed to Graves’s conviction. So unfortunately I don’t have a lot of faith that his release will result in any kind of reform.