In 1994, a jury foreman in Angleton, Texas passed a folded sheet of paper to a judge sitting behind a large piece of antique furniture. That judge would read words that changed my life, that remain seared in my brain even today.
“Anthony Charles Graves,” he said. “A jury of this court sentences you to death by lethal injection.”
I couldn’t speak. I stared straight ahead as the prosecutor in my case rubbed salt into my gaping wound.
“I don’t think he understood what you just said there,” the prosecutor said. The judge called me to the bench and explained it to me again. I didn’t need the second explanation. It was clear enough. These people were fixing to kill me for a mass child murder I didn’t know about in a town almost an hour away.
I spent 18 years in custody before the State of Texas let me go. It took the work of more than a dozen attorneys, investigators, professors, and journalists to prove my innocence. Much of my time was spent in solitary confinement, where I watched men lose their minds long before the State pumped their veins full of poison.
I ended up on Death Row for many reasons. The prosecutor hid evidence and manipulated the jury through the media. My trial was moved from my hometown, where people knew me and might question the characterization of me as a killer, to a town with documented ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
I also had a lawyer who was ill-equipped to handle a capital trial, and who didn’t have the resources to fully investigate my case. My lawyer cared. He was passionate about my innocence. To this day, I won’t speak ill of him because I saw in the tears that poured from his eyes a conscious sincerity. My lawyer was a victim, too, of a system that sometimes intentionally deprives its defendants of the things they need to fight the State.
That brings me to a mounting crisis in Louisiana. Governor John Bel Edwards has instructed each of his state agencies that they must cut funding by 66-percent. They’ve been asked to present proposals for what their efforts might look like running on one-third the fuel it had before. The state’s Public Defender Board is one of those agencies.
The Board has a choice to make on how it will allocate its remaining funds. It can cut every office equally, bringing effective and ineffective offices alike to their knees. Or it can choose to keep intact those offices that are providing a model for public defense in Louisiana. Lafayette is one of those offices.
During the nearly two decades that my case slithered through various Texas and federal courts, I was represented by many lawyers. I was blessed with some of the best lawyers in Texas, but I also languished under the care of lawyers who weren’t properly trained or funded to do their jobs. I know better than most that not all lawyers are created equally. The same is true for public defenders. Some serve with a client-centric approach that values the humanity and dignity of the men and women charged with crimes.
Lafayette has benefitted from its long-running association with Gideon’s Promise, the nationally renowned group that recruits and trains young public defenders. Gideon’s Promise has been able to place lawyers successfully in Lafayette drawing talent from across the country to affect positive change in the legal community there. The Law School Partnership Project (LSPP), as it’s called, has allowed Gideon’s Promise to send skilled defenders to Lafayette while convincing law schools to pay the first year of the new defender’s salary. With the cost of those salaries paid, Louisiana has saved more than $500,000. It’s the sort of partnership that benefits Louisiana and its citizens, giving them not only the financial lift that’s needed during budget crises, but also an army of public defenders intent on changing the culture around criminal defense in the state.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet the young lawyers trained by Gideon’s Promise. I spoke in Atlanta at one of their events. I can attest to not only the skill of the young trainees, but also the passion they bring to the job. These are lawyers who visit their clients, who take their cases to trial, and who advocate for the holistic needs of the people. In changing the climate in Lafayette, they’ve shown the rest of the state what a functioning public defender system can look like, and truly, what it can bring to the local community.
It makes little sense to dismantle all of the public defender’s offices in Louisiana, forcing all parishes to return to the appointed contract system that has failed so many before. As the founder of the Anthony Graves Foundation and the Human Investigation Project, I’ve helped men like Alfred Brown walk off of death row many years after the system failed then. Functional and well-funded public defender’s offices with passionate lawyers ensure that people like Alfred never require our help.
They ensure that fewer people like me get sentenced to death for crimes we didn’t commit.
The Louisiana Public Defender Board must protect model offices like the one in Lafayette. In some parts of the state, tearing down the local defender’s office to replace it with contract labor wouldn’t diminish the quality of legal representation. Some Louisiana parishes do not have public defender’s offices worth protecting. In others, de-funding the office would set the parish back many decades, undoing the hard work accomplished by the lawyers there and by advocates for public defense everywhere. Lafayette can be a model for the whole state, helping other offices understand how to combat the unique challenges facing public defenders in Louisiana. But the Public Defender Board must act to retain its funding, even at the expense of other, less functional offices.
Hard choices must be made when budget shortfalls arise. Still, the choices we make have consequences. I lived those consequences, and would be disappointed to see the Lafayette office, which has been so influential, fall into disrepair. Lafayette has shown that the citizens of Louisiana can have a functional public defender system fulfilling the requirements of the United States Constitution. It’s time to defend and protect the progress that’s been made.