Scent Lineup Not Necessary as Texas Prosecutors Declare Anthony Graves Innocent

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Last year, Texas prosecutors wanted to use a “scent lineup” in a desperate attempt to generate new evidence against Anthony Graves, whose death sentence had been overturned in 2006. “Scent lineups” are a ridiculous form of junk science where dogs match a scent from a crime scene with a scent from a suspect (in this case the evidence from the crime scene was 17 years old, had been stored – actually lost – for years in an old unused jail cell, and came from a house that was burned to the ground).

Fortunately this year, Bill Parham, the new DA for Washington and Burleson counties, and special prosecutor Kelly Siegler took a hard 5-month long look at the case.  This refreshingly straightforward statement from Siegler says it all:  

“After months of investigation and talking to every witness who’s ever been involved in this case, and people who’ve never been talked to before, after looking under every rock we could find, we found not one piece of credible evidence that links Anthony Graves to the commission of this capital murder.  This is not a case where the evidence went south with time or witnesses passed away or we just couldn’t make the case anymore. He is an innocent man.”

So, on Wednesday, October 27, Anthony Graves became the 139th person exonerated from US death rows since 1973 and the 12th exoneree from Texas. 

But how did he end up on death row in the first place?

Partly, it was because the prosecutor, Charles Sebesta, elicited false statements and withheld evidence that would have helped Graves’ case.  But mostly, Graves’ conviction was based on a statement from the actual killer, Robert Carter.  Carter later recanted, and continued to insist that Graves was innocent up to and including the moment he (Carter) was executed.  After being tied down in the Texas death chamber, using some of his last words, Carter said:  “Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. … I lied on him in court.”

After the conviction was reversed, new prosecutors still attempted to re-try him.  The new judge (whose father tried the original case) allowed Carter’s statement to be used as evidence, even though Carter had retracted it multiple times and was no longer available to testify or be cross-examined (the state having killed him). Then, there was the lost evidence that was found, and the proposed “scent lineups” … But the responsible efforts of DA Parham and special prosecutor Siegler brought Anthony Graves’ legal nightmare to an end, after 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Will North Carolina Halt Executions?

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Following the release of a devastatingly critical report on the shoddy work of North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) crime labs, Seth Edwards, the president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys today said he “supported a moratorium on the execution of any death-row inmates whose cases include evidence from the State Bureau of Investigations crime labs.”

The fallout from the audit of the SBI, combined with the fact that 152 death row inmates in NC are now challenging their death sentences under the new Racial Justice Act, paints a picture of criminal justice and capital punishment systems in chaos.  And that may be a good thing.  At least the Tar Heel state (unlike some states)  has been somewhat willing to look critically at its systems of justice.   

But this bout of self-examination should only be the beginning.  The state’s investigation of the SBI was not comprehensive (only the serology lab was looked into; the SBI’s performance in other areas – fingerprints, DNA , ballistics, drug analysis, documents and digital – has yet to be reviewed).  The Raleigh News and Observer’s recent hard hitting series provides some idea of what might be found if all those rocks were turned over.  To their credit, NC DAs have demanded a full audit of the SBI.  

Because executing someone wrongfully would be the ultimate injustice, it is imperative that NC take a second look at all death row cases, including those who have already been executed.   Seth Edwards’ suggestion for a partial moratorium is fine, but really all executions should be halted.  And really, they should be halted permanently.