Prof. Nicole Casarez, Students Help Free Death Row Inmate
After spending the last 18 years in prison for murders he did not commit, former death row inmate Anthony Graves could justifiably feel angry, bitter and resentful. Instead, Graves continues to be driven by the same hope and determination that carried him through his darkest hours in prison.
Graves says his unlikely optimism and perseverance are inspired by steadfast support from Nicole Casarez, attorney and University of St. Thomas communication professor. From 2002-2006, Casarez and a group of former UST journalism students worked diligently to prove Graves’ innocence. Since 2006, Casarez has continued to work pro bono for Graves with co-council Katherine Scardino and Jimmy Phillips Jr. The team succeeded, and Graves was set free on Oct. 27 after Burleson County prosecutors said there was no evidence to inculpate him.
“You have to hold on to hope regardless of the circumstances, and things will work out,” Graves said. “Believe in yourself and believe that better days are ahead. Having someone in my life like Nicole, who believed in me and who was dedicated to seeking justice for me – that gave me hope. She never left me, and I was ready to go to war with her. I can never say enough about how instrumental Nicole has been in my life.”
Graves said he is also eternally grateful for the students who helped investigate his case.
“The students and I have developed a great friendship, and I will always be thankful for their committed work,” Graves said. “In life you have to find something greater than yourself, something that challenges you to get up every day. I was really impressed that these young people really believe in a greater cause; that’s amazing in today’s society. I believe that every one of them will go on to do great things.”
Casarez said she had her doubts and weak moments, questioning whether their investigations would affect change in the judicial system. Her confidence grew when Graves’ conviction was overturned in 2006 by a federal appellate court. He spent the next four years in Burleson County jail awaiting retrial.
“I think the lesson to be learned is that the legal system is not perfect,” Casarez said. “Mistakes can be made, our legal system is implemented by human beings, and human beings are not infallible. It should be a wakeup call and a warning that injustices can occur. Too often, we have blind faith in our justice system. It is sobering that a group of college students can uncover a mistake and play a role in righting a wrong.”
Since his release, Graves, Casarez and her former students have been the focus of nationwide acclaim and media attention. Casarez said her cell phone, e-mail and home answering machine all crashed from the media inquiries and congratulatory calls. David Dow, University of Houston law professor and founder of the Texas Innocence Network, commended the team on their victory.
“The reason (Graves was released) is that Nicole is tenacious, industrious, fearless, and utterly committed to justice,” Dow said. “It would be absurd to suggest that the happy outcome proves the system. When an innocent man spends more than a decade on death row, the system has not worked. What happened here in Texas is that Nicole Casarez refused to allow the legal system to continue to fail. I've heard it said that in the long run, truth and justice will always prevail. But that claim is false. Truth and justice prevail only when there are people like Nicole who tirelessly pursue it. ”
UST President Dr. Robert Ivany also congratulated Casarez and her students for their “dedication to justice and integrity in our legal system.”
“Were it not for Professor Casarez and the students whom she inspired, a serious miscarriage of justice would have continued to prevail,” Ivany said. “All of us at St. Thomas and in the entire community are indebted to her and her students for saving a precious human life from death or further incarceration. We are fortunate and proud that she continues to teach and motivate our students at St. Thomas.”
Casarez plans to take a leave of absence in spring 2011 to work side-by-side with Graves helping him rebuild his life and move forward. For now, Graves says he wants to spread his message of hope, and he refuses to let anger, bitterness or resentment add to the 18 years he has already lost.
“I want to do positive work, and I can’t do positive work with a negative mindset,” Graves said. “My approach to life is to take it one day at a time. I was shown how life can change on a dime. In prison, I learned my own strength, and I learned through introspection what true freedom is about. It’s not about walking the streets. It’s about being spiritually free.”