It was once a staple plot of TV westerns: There’s been a vicious killing. Everybody knows who did it – or thinks they know – and the posse wants to string the varmint up. No need for the bother of a trial. The crime was outrageous, people are furious. So get the rope, find a tree.
Watching, you’d be glad we’ve moved beyond frontier justice, glad the howling of the mob can no longer stampede us into condemning an innocent man.
Anthony Graves would beg to differ. In 1992, he was arrested for a multiple murder that roiled the tiny Texas town of Somerville. A 45-year-old woman, her 16-year-old daughter, and four children, all younger than 10, had been beaten, stabbed and shot to death and their home torched.
No physical evidence linked Graves to the crime. He had no motive to butcher six strangers. Three witnesses placed him at home at the time of the murders.
And in the end, it didn’t matter. Graves was convicted and sentenced to die solely on the word of one Robert Carter, father of one of the murdered children. Carter had shown up to his son’s funeral with his hands, neck and ears heavily bandaged, the result, he said, of having accidentally burned himself while doing yard work.
Questioned by authorities, he said he had driven Graves, his cousin by marriage, to the victims’ house and sent him up to the door after Graves asked if Carter knew any women. Carter, who had just been slapped with a paternity suit for his now-dead son, claimed Graves, for some unknown reason, simply went berserk.
Eventually, Carter backed off that story, saying he alone was responsible for the crime. Over the years, he would say repeatedly – including at his execution in 2000 – that he had lied. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it.
And that would not matter, either.
The tale is recounted in the new issue of Texas Monthly magazine (www.texasmonthly.com). To read Pamela Colloff’s report is to be sobered by the degree to which public outrage still drives death penalty decisions.
It was an awful crime and people “needed” to see someone punished for it. Indeed, Somerville mayor Tanya Roush told the Austin American Statesman that her town was impatient with the idea of a trial. “They’re saying, ‘Bring back the hangin’ tree, and save the taxpayers’ money.”’
“There was a lot of pressure in this community to get convictions,” says Colloff. “No one stopped along the way and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Does this case make any sense?’ It just kept moving forward.”
And because it did, Anthony Graves – 26 when he was arrested, 45 now – has lost years he can never get back. He may yet lose his life. What has happened and “is” happening to him is obscene. Graves is a victim of, and may yet become a martyr to, that need to see someone punished. Unfortunately, there is often an inverse relationship between that need and justice. The more you have of the former, the less likely you are to find the latter.
And having condemned this man on evidence so flimsy as to profane the very notion of justice, prosecutors apparently find it impossible to back down and admit the self-evident. So Graves, who won a retrial in 2006 after 12 years on death row, will return to court in February where the DA will try to convict him again.
We stand witness to a monstrous wrong perpetrated out of that vestigial sense of frontier justice in the American psyche which says some crimes are so heinous they demand we bypass niggling questions of evidence, motive, proof, even fairness, on the way to the hanging tree. Some crimes leave communities outraged and demanding punishment and there are those who say those emotions are the reason we must put people to death.
Actually, they are a pretty good reason we should not.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpittsmiamiherald.com. Leonard Pitts will be chatting with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT on www.MiamiHerald.com.