Infinite Hope, Anthony Graves. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.
Summary: A first person account of an innocent black man wrongly found guilty of murder, leading to eighteen years in prison and twelve on death row until he was found innocent and released.
A terrible murder has taken place. Six people have been brutally murdered, and then set on fire in an attempt to destroy the evidence. A distant connection arrested for the murder implicates you as his collaborator, even though he barely knows you. You have an alibi, spending the time with your girlfriend, and among family, miles away from the murder scene. You are arrested, read your Miranda rights, but refuse an attorney because you think this is all a bad misunderstanding that can be cleared up by simply telling the truth. You are subjected to intense questioning, kept in prison without bond, monitored by prison guards, and other prisoners for making incriminating statements. The district attorney intimidates the murderer to testify against you even though he has previously admitted that this was a lie. Your alibi is intimidated with the threat of criminal charges. Crucial evidence is withheld from the defense team. You are convicted of murder, and sentenced to be put to death by the state of Texas. You spend twelve years on death row, and eighteen behind bars.
If you read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (review) and still weren’t convinced that stories like Walter McMillian’s was an exception, or cannot happen in America, perhaps this story of Anthony Graves might persuade you. In this book, Graves narrates the story from the side of the falsely accused, describing his arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing, the ordeal of living on death row, and how he was finally exonerated and his subsequent activism. It is an honest, raw account. He describes his increasing sense of desperation as he realizes that telling the truth isn’t enough, that the prosecutor (eventually charge with prosecutorial misconduct) will not stop at anything to convict him, and the agonizing wait for the jury’s verdict and sentence. He describes deplorable prison conditions, the unlikely friendships, and a brutal murder on death row. He recounts prison protests, and lockdowns, and periods of solitary confinement, and the terrible struggle to keep up hope. Twice he was given execution dates. He recounts the heartbreak of watching his sons grow up and not be able to be there for them.
He challenges us to grapple with the realities of living on death row:
“Like most Americans, I hadn’t given much thought to death row before my arrest. The writer and anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean famously said that support for the death penalty is a mile wide but only an inch thick. She meant that the death penalty’s many supporters rarely investigate the basis of their own beliefs. As I walked into Ellis One Unit, I didn’t know what to think. People typically focus on the death part of a death penalty sentence. What they don’t tell you is that life on death row is a torture all its own. I had no idea that I’d be living in a six-by-nine-foot cage, or that I’d do my business in a steel toilet in plain view of male and female officers alike” (p. 112).
There are also the people who keep on believing and fighting, from overseas correspondents to Nicole Casarez, part of his legal team who doggedly investigated his case as a journalism teacher and former corporate lawyer. A mother who never stopped praying and encouraging him. And finally, when his conviction is overturned, a new prosecutor, Kelly Siegler, who has the integrity to listen to her investigators, who told her that Graves was innocent.
Graves recounts his own growth, as he writes the memoirs that form the basis of this book, as he reads extensively from the prison library (he includes a list of formative books for him at the end of the book), and watches fellow prisoners go to their deaths. He becomes a legal expert on his own case, which forms him into the advocate he is now for criminal justice reform through the Anthony Graves Foundation.
Graves writes of others he believed to be innocent, and his case is certainly among a growing list of those under death sentences who have been exonerated. Surprisingly, Graves doesn’t make a big deal of his race, although racial bias is clearly evident in the narrative of his experience. Yet his case raises questions of how many innocent people have gone to their deaths. Given the number of such cases, and the racial bias in many of these cases, one has to ask whether, in the matter of death sentences, there is equal justice for all, and if not, in Bryan Stevenson’s words, “Do we deserve to kill?”
As important as these questions are, it is also important to note, and end on, the determination of Anthony Graves, his family, attorneys, and friends. Corrupt officials took away his liberty but they did not take away his hope. That hope for exoneration, for justice turned a young man trying to figure out his life into an advocate for justice for others. That hope led him to confront, at his disbarment hearing, the prosecutor who wrongly tried to have him executed, and forgive him. That hope gave us this raw and yet grace-filled narrative of wrongful conviction, life on death row, and vindication. Infinite hope, indeed.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.