Up close and personal with the death penalty

By Mary P. Walker
Senior Correspondent

On Sept. 25, the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, Jan Brown and Anthony Graves presented their “Personal Encounters with the Texas Death Penalty” at St. Mary Catholic Center in College Station. Brown is the mother Kandy Kirtland, a child murdered in 1987; and Graves spent 12 years on death row after being wrongly convicted of killing six people, including four children.
“I’m not a proponent of the death penalty, but I’ve been affected by the death penalty,” said Brown, whose 9-year old daughter was kidnapped, shot, and buried under trash in Bryan in 1987. 
The killer was apprehended, and against Brown’s wishes, the district attorney sought and secured a death penalty conviction. Brown had the horrible experience of testifying at the trial. After the killer’s conviction, she feared that the appeals process made possible by the death sentence would grant him a new trial, forcing her to re-live that nightmare. 
In spite of losing her daughter to murder, Brown does not believe that the death penalty is a moral option, describing it as “murder by the state with permission by laws and the jury.” Living a “non-life” is how she characterized the 11 years between the killer’s conviction and execution. She reminded the audience that not only did she suffer, but the families of those on death row suffer too. When she went to witness the execution, another terrible experience, she prayed for them. 
While the execution ended the legal process, it did not bring her daughter back or ease her loss. Brown believes that a punishment of life without the possibility of parole would have been more compassionate for her and the killer’s family. 
Today, her love for her daughter is manifested through prison ministry. To those who think the death penalty deters crime, she stated that she has talked to hundreds of prisoners and has never heard an offender say that the possibility of a death sentence was a consideration when committing a crime. She believes in treating prisoners humanely and offering them the opportunity for contrition and rehabilitation.
Anthony Grave’s encounter with the death penalty was truly personal. Convicted of killing six people in Somerville in 1992, he was sentenced to death. Robert Carter, the father of one of the victims, named Graves as his accomplice to the crimes. Graves explained that Carter’s pressured and perjured testimony was the “evidence” against him. There was no physical evidence linking him to the murders. Graves had no personal relationship with Carter or the victims, no motive for the crimes, and had three alibi witnesses. 
Carter recanted his identification, and later, the prosecutor was found to have withheld evidence that would have helped Graves. Sentenced to death himself, Carter continued disavowing the involvement of Graves — even from the gurney that he was strapped to when he received a lethal injection.
After his conviction, Graves spent 12 years on death row, where he lived in solitary confinement in an 8 by 10 foot cell for 23-24 hours a day. “You never know how important human contact is until it is taken away from you,” Graves said.
Enduring those conditions and knowing that he was innocent, tested Graves. During his time on death row, many prisoners were executed, others committed suicide, and still others exhibited signs of severe mental illness.   
Graves’ insistence of his innocence, media attention, the lack of evidence tying him to the crime, and the hard work of the Innocence Project helped him secure a new trial. 
Anxious for this trial, which he believed would set him free, Graves was moved to the county jail. Rather than the speedy trial guaranteed by the Constitution, his case cycled through a serious of prosecutors for four years. He was offered the chance of a plea bargain, but refused. Finally, in 2010, the charges were dropped after an extensive investigation found him innocent and wrongfully convicted. Graves was 26 when he first entered the jail and 45 when the criminal justice system finally released him. He spent 6,640 days incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.
Although his family was overjoyed, Graves stated that his own celebration was restrained because he believed there were other innocent people on death row who would probably be executed. In fact, Graves is one of 12 Texas death row inmates who were later found to have been wrongfully convicted. In addition, others have been executed in spite of strong evidence of their innocence. Today Graves educates others about the need for criminal justice reform, the humane treatment of prisoners, and advocates for lawyers to practice with integrity.
Father Barry Cuba, associate pastor of St. Mary Catholic Center, closed the meeting with prayer and said, “Hearing the stories of people affected by the death penalty reminds us that we are dealing with human beings. Sometimes it’s very difficult to love — incredibly difficult. Love is at its purest, strongest and most authentic when we choose to treat someone with the dignity even when it hurts. That’s what Christ did, and what he expects us to do.”
The presentation was sponsored by the St. Mary’s Aggies Promoting Life (SMAPL), the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and the Anthony Graves Foundation.