On November 1, 1994, I heard the gavel fall and the judge announce, “Anthony Graves, I hereby sentence you to death by lethal injection.” The jury had already convicted me of murdering six people and burning down their house down to cover up the crime. I was completely innocent: they had the wrong guy. I was scared of dying for a crime I did not commit, but I believed in my innocence and hoped someone, somewhere would make it right.
What I didn’t know then was that this wrongful death sentence was only part of the torture I would experience for the next 18-and-a-half years. I didn’t know that I would be forced to live in an 8x12 cage. I didn’t know I would have to use a steel toilet, connected to my steel sink, in plain view of the male and female corrections officers would walk the runs in front of my cell. I didn’t know that for years on end I would have no physical contact with a single human being.
I didn’t know that guards would feed me like a dog, through a slot in my door. Instead of providing basic nutrients, the food sometimes contained rat feces, broken glass, or the sweat of the inmate who cooked it. This diet caused me health problems that continue today. The prison gave me no phone to call my loved ones, no television to keep up with the world and local events, and no real medical care. I lived behind a steel door, with filthy mesh-covered windows looking out to the run; my only window to the outside world was a tiny one on the top of the back wall of my cell. With its peeling, old, and dull paint, my cage was the image of an abandoned one-room project apartment. If I had known when I was sentenced all I would have to go through before I would win my freedom, I don’t know if even my faith in my own innocence would have been enough to sustain me.
I was proven innocent in 2010, and became death row exonoree number 138. Some people say that my exoneration, and those of 11 other Texas death row inmates, proves that our system works: the system freed me before I was executed. These people don’t understand (among other things) that a death sentence for an innocent person in Texas comes with the physical, emotional, and psychological torture of solitary confinement. If the argument is the State can hold death-row inmates until their appeals finish (and they are exonerated like me or their appeals fail and execution can go forward), shouldn’t the State at least keep us physically and psychologically healthy for that time period? Shouldn’t they keep us whole? Because Texas did not do that for me, I suffer from ongoing problems – body and mind. I’m innocent and I’m free, but I pay for my freedom with mood swings, emotional breakdowns, veins calcified with plaque, sleepless nights, loneliness, and difficulty being in large crowds. And it was even worse for other guys.
I saw guys who dropped their appeals because of the intolerable conditions. Before his execution, one inmate told me he would rather die than continue existing under these inhumane conditions. I saw guys come to prison sane, and leave this world insane, talking nonsense on the execution gurney. One guy suffered some of his last days smearing feces, lying naked in the recreation yard, and urinating on himself.
Some of us on death row were innocent. Some were unlawfully sentenced to death and had their sentences thrown out. We all suffered the same. If you believe in the death penalty, I hope you would at least agree that some of us – the innocent ones and ones unlawfully sentenced to die – did not deserve this torture. Even if you believe in the death penalty, these torturous conditions make no sense. They damaged guys so much they could not repent for their crimes. Guys could not focus on the wrong they had done when they had a legitimate complaint of being tortured on death row by the State of Texas.
And the torture was unnecessary. We all suffered it because since 2000 all Texas death row inmates are incarcerated in solitary confinement, even if they behave. It is the only part of the Texas prison system where an inmate is forced to live in solitary confinement based completely on his sentence, rather than based on whether he can get along in less strict conditions.