Graves Free on Bond; Prosecutor Withdraws
By Jordan Smith,
1:24PM, Tue. Dec. 19, 2006
The Chronicle learned Dec. 18 that Burleson County District Attorney Renee Mueller this afternoon filed a motion voluntarily recusing her entire office from handling the retrial of Anthony Graves, who was convicted and sentenced to die for a 1992 multiple murder in that county. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year overturned Graves’ conviction on grounds that several crucial witness statements had been withheld from the defense at his original trial. Moreover, also Dec. 18, the 5th Circuit again ruled in Graves’ favor, denying a state motion to keep him locked up until he can be retried. The appellate court ruling orders the state to hold a bond hearing by Jan. 4, or release Graves no later than that date on a $50,000 bond already set by U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent.
Graves and co-defendant Robert Carter, who was executed in 2000, were convicted and sentenced to die for the murders of a family of six, including four children under 10 years old; the family was bludgeoned, stabbed, and shot, and their home was set on fire in an apparent attempt to cover up the crime. Graves has maintained his innocence but was fingered as an accomplice by Carter. Carter later recanted, saying he was pressured by law enforcers to name an accomplice – even though he had none – and that Graves played no part in the murders or arson.
The news that the Burleson DA’s office is stepping away from Graves’ retrial comes a week after Burleson Co. District Judge Reva Townslee-Corbett (whose father was the judge presiding over Graves’ 1994 trial) granted a defense motion to disqualify Assistant DA Joan Scroggins, who was the third-chair attorney at Graves’ first trial, from being a part of the new prosecution team. During a Nov. 30 pretrial hearing, Texas Ranger Ray Coffman, the lead investigator on the murder case, testified that Carter told him numerous times that he had acted alone and that Graves was, in fact, innocent. Amazingly, sources tell the Chronicle that Coffman further testified that each time Carter told him that Graves was not involved, Coffman passed that information along to then-DA Charles Sebesta. Nonetheless, sources say Coffman admitted that he never recorded this information in his investigative reports because, Coffman allegedly testified, he did not believe Carter was telling the truth.
Sources say Coffman’s testimony last month was met with a collective courtroom gasp – in large part because the Texas Ranger previously testified that Carter never before told him that he had acted alone and that Graves was, in fact, innocent, a circumstance that could mean Coffman perjured himself back in 1994.
What will happen now that the entire Burleson DA’s office is off the case remains unclear. Sources say it is likely that Mueller will try to find a special prosecutor to take the case, though none was identified in today’s motion. That may prove to be a problem since the 5th Circuit ruled Monday that the state must set Graves free on bond pending any retrial. According to the six-page opinion, authored by appellate Judge W. Eugene Davis, the state has not been able to offer any credible argument as to why Graves should not be freed while awaiting retrial. In November, Kent ordered Graves released on a $50K bond and unless the state can get its act together by Jan. 4, Kent’s order will stand, meaning with $5K up front Graves could walk out of prison – and away from death row – after more than 12 years behind bars.
Graves’ freedom would, of course, be contingent on his showing up for all further court proceedings – including any future retrial on the capital murder charges. But given the bitch-slapping the state has been taking for the handling of the Graves case, it is unclear whether anyone – including those working under Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office actually spearheaded the appeal to keep Graves behind bars – will now be willing to put their balls on the chopping block in order to prosecute a case that threatens to set free many of the dusty, dirty, and downright ugly skeletons that live in Texas’ death penalty-loving closet.