With more than 273 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, the Innocence Project is committed to reforming the issues in the legal processes that allow innocent people to be wrongly convicted.
The Innocence Project is comprised of a small group of lawyers, students, teachers and volunteers around the country who look into cases where the convicted have some proof of innocence.
Jimmy Fowler, criminology major, asks Jeff Blackburn questions regarding the Anthony Graves case at the speaker series event. Photo by Chynna DeHoyos: The Signal.
The Innocence Project’s founder Jeff Blackburn came to speak at UHCL Sept. 27 about their latest battle won, Anthony Graves, who was exonerated in October 2010.
Graves was convicted in the October 1994 murders of Bobbie Davis, her daughter and four of Davis’ grandchildren. Texas Monthly magazine described the killings as one of the most brutal murders the town of Somerville, Texas. The victims were bludgeoned, stabbed, shot and then set on fire.
Graves was brought in after the main suspect Robert Carter, a father of one of the children in the murders, named Graves as his accomplice in the murders. Due to the brutality of the murders, the police believed there was no way one man could commit such an act alone.
Carter recanted his statement later in life and said that the only reason he gave Graves’ name to the police is because they threatened to implement his wife as an accomplice if he did not provide a second name. Carter, who barely knew Graves, thought that it would be easy to prove Graves innocent. In Carter’s statement where he named Graves, he calls him by the wrong name several times.
Carter was wrong. Despite lack of physical evidence, Graves was found guilty and served 18 years in prison before the Innocence Project interceded on his behalf.
“We are fighters in my group, and we fight to get innocent people out of prison; we don’t fight for guilty people,” explained Jeff Blackburn, founder and chief counsel to the Innocence Project of Texas. “We represent people for which there is proof of innocence.”
That is what the Innocence Project found to be true with Graves when they decided to take his case.
When Graves was arrested for the crime, he was given a polygraph test and failed. Polygraph tests are considered to be unreliable and not admissible in court. The failed polygraph test in Graves’ case was used to create evidence for a conviction. This is an example of the “junk science” that the Innocence Project is trying to do away with. Junk science is considered to be any science that is not validated through scientific peer review. Statewide DNA tests, and outdated arson policies are also being reviewed.
“Sometimes we are trying so hard to put the criminals in jail that we don’t always make sure we have the criminal,” said Joyce Delores Taylor, adjunct instructor in criminology.
Graves sought out the help of the Innocence Project through the University of Houston Law Center’s Innocence Project and University of St. Thomas’ Innocence Project.
Graves credits his release to Nicole Casarez, secretary of the Innocence Project, and her students at the St. Thomas’ Innocence Project who worked on his case for six years and only achieved Graves release through a lucky break.
Unlike most cases that the Innocence Project works on, Graves’ case was overturned by research, not by DNA exoneration. When Distinct Attorney Charles Sebesta was taping a 2000 Geraldo Rivera NBC special, Sebesta admitted Carter told him the night before the trial that he committed the murders by himself.
The courts allowed for Graves’ case to be reopened based on the fact Sebesta had not told the defense attorney this knowledge, which might have changed the outcome of Graves’ case. This allowed the conviction to be overturned in the 5th circuit, which paved the way for a retrial.
Graves was exonerated when Burleson County dropped the murder charges against him.
The Innocence Project members believe that the Texas legal system is flawed, which is the main reason why they are out there fighting to bring justice to the wrongly convicted. For one thing, the Innocence Project is trying to reform the way the legal system does eyewitness identification.
With the way the state currently carries out eyewitness identification, the Innocence Project has been able to overturn 75 percent of eyewitness testimonies.
“There are too many people in prison and on death row who are innocent” said Steven Eggers, associate professor of criminology. “One of the reasons for this is the procedure most police departments use to conduct eye-witness lineups, which are biased. Eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate and unreliable. There has been a great deal of research to back up this statement.”
Alpha Phi Sigma wanted to bring the Innocence Project onto campus to help students understand a system in which innocent men like Graves could possibly be put to death.
“We take crime very seriously, but in doing so I don’t think we take the time to actually look at the information, and actually hear the individual that’s being prosecuted,” said Taylor, who is also the Alpha Phi Sigma alumni representative.
Eggers has formed an Innocence Project here at UHCL so that criminology students will have the chance to have an effect on the real world of criminal justice. The Innocence Project is always looking for more volunteers because they are overwhelmed with thousands of cases; right now they can only look into a few.