Anthony Graves was convicted in 1994 for killing six people in 1992. He was exonerated in 2010 after having served 18 and a half years in prison, 16 of which were spent in solitary confinement and 12 of which were on death row. The prosecutor in Graves’ case was eventually disbarred for misconduct, and Texas had to pay Graves US$1.45 million in compensation for the damage the state had done to him. Graves now works at the ACLU of Texas as the Smart Justice Initiatives Manager. Below is an excerpt from Graves’ recently published book, “Infinite Hope: How Wrongful Conviction, Solitary Confinement, and 12 years on Death Row Failed to Kill My Soul” (Beacon Press, 2018). It is reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Early November 1994: Entering the Lion’s Den
I arrived at death row on November 1, 1994, the same year director Frank Darabont turned Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption into the now classic movie about a wrongfully convicted banker and his wise black friend. A green stone tower at the entrance to the Ellis Unit prison looked a little like the structures that rose from the Maine dirt in that film. A white female guard stood atop the tower. A pistol holstered to her hip, she also held a rifle in her right hand. She looked to be in her 50s, and her Southern drawl told me she’d been plucked from a roster of job applicants who lived somewhere nearby.
“You’re in the wrong place!” she hollered down from the tower to the officer that brought me to the gates. “You’ve got to run him over to the diagnostic unit. They’ll process him there.”
Processing took a few minutes. Agents of the state asked my name. They took down some information and scribbled a few indecipherable words onto paper. I did a lot of waiting. A few minutes later, we returned to the green tower with the female overseer. The officer who brought me there placed his gun and some paperwork into a plastic bucket attached to a rope. The woman in the tower pulled up the officer’s supplies like a banker sucking a drive-through deposit through the magic transport tubes.
I closed my eyes to block the shining sun. The gate opened and three officers placed their hands on me. They let me walk at my own pace toward death row. I tried to take in the scene. It wasn’t much to behold. Death row is intimidating. It’s designed as a testament to the ultimate power of the state to kill and control its citizens. I knew what had happened at my trial, but I still wasn’t quite sure how I ended up there.
Coming to death row is like stepping back in time a few hundred years. When slave traders transported men and women from Africa across the Middle Passage, they’d drop those slaves off in cities like Charleston. Four in 10 African slaves passed through Charleston, where they were sold publicly, in the streets, until the city banned the practice in 1856. Thereafter, slave inspection and buying moved to the local slave mart. The slaves were stripped and weighed, their distinctive qualities noted for potential buyers. A light-skinned female slave would go for US$50,000 or more in today’s dollars. A slave with a skill like carpentry would also command a high price. The caretakers of death row learned from that legacy. I stepped inside a pen. I was strip-searched in case I’d managed to pick up a gun or knife on the ride over from my previous jail. I had become used to the strip searches. It was just a routine of humiliation that had run its course. If a man can stand there and watch me move my private parts around for him, then that’s what I would do. My mindset was to follow all the rules and keep it simple. Next, an officer handed me prison clothes, which consisted of a white jumper and a white pair of cloth slippers for my feet. I finally got a haircut. A shower would follow. Once sufficiently clean, I was ready for the short ride to Ellis One Unit. Named for a former Texas prison administrator, it housed the state’s death row.