- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

HOUSTON (AP) - Nanon Williams expected to walk out of prison in 2010, just about the same time as his close friend and former death row mentor Anthony Graves.

For the third time, a court had reversed Williams’ murder conviction, and he was just waiting for the final nod of approval before leaving behind the cell for the first time in his adult life.

A half-decade later, he still waits - wearing the same prison whites that have been his uniform since age 17, still overwhelmed by the pain of the appeals court decision that denied his pleas of innocence.

“I got sent back to prison, and he walked out the door,” said Williams, now 41, told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1LHx3nP ).

From his cell at the Ramsey Unit, where he is serving a life sentence for the fatal 1992 shooting of 19-year-old Adonius Collier in Houston, Williams has watched with awe and pride as his friend blossomed in freedom.

From the moment Graves was exonerated in 2010, he set out to reform the criminal justice system that stole 18 years of his life. He was determined to help others who have suffered under a regime he believes is fundamentally flawed.

In the last two years, Graves has invested more than $150,000 - part of the money the state paid him to compensate for the years he spent wrongly imprisoned - to launch the Anthony Graves Foundation. The still-budding nonprofit is dedicated to freeing other innocent inmates and providing health care to recently released prisoners with medical problems and no means to pay for treatment.

But seeing Williams, the wild, angry young man who arrived on death row the same day he did, walk free is near the top of the 50-year-old’s long to-do list.

“I was on death row with a lot of men that I believe are guilty,” Graves said. “I learned that this young man was innocent.”

Graves was convicted in 1994 of one of the most heinous crimes the small community of Somerville had ever seen. Bobbie Davis, her daughter and her four grandchildren were stabbed, and the house they were in was set aflame. Just days before Robert Carter was executed in 2000 for his role in the crime, Carter admitted he had been the lone killer. Graves, he said during a deposition, was innocent. Nearly a decade later, Graves was exonerated and released from prison.

In 2011, Texas wrote Graves a check for $1.45 million for the years he spent wrongfully imprisoned. He will receive the same amount in an annuity that is paid out monthly for the rest of his life.

People often ask Graves why he didn’t head for the beach after so many years of undeserved punishment. He said he didn’t lose nearly two decades to spend the rest of his free years lounging.

“No, I wanted to make a difference,” he said.

Long before he was released, Graves began making plans to help from the other side. The first job he got after leaving prison was helping investigate cases for the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit organization that represents death row inmates.

The case of Alfred Brown, a death row inmate who was exonerated last year, was among the first in which he played a pivotal role, persuading a crucial witness who had lied at trial to recant her testimony.

Two years ago, Graves decided to started his own innocence project.

In many ways, Brown’s case was similar to Graves’. Unlike hundreds of exoneration cases that make headlines, there was no DNA evidence to prove them innocent. Clearing their names required relentlessly chasing leads until the truth was revealed.

Most innocence projects won’t take on such a labor-intensive proposition. Those organizations use strict criteria, often accepting only cases in which forensic testing could lead to new evidence of innocence.

Graves started the Humane Investigation Project within his foundation to clear away that red tape.

“I’d be dead today, because I had no DNA in my case,” he said. “A lot of guys fall through the cracks because of the criteria of these projects.”

Hundreds of requests for help flood into his office each week. Graves said he’s homed in on 10 that he believes have legitimate innocence claims.

“We go talk to the witnesses, we go and really investigate the case, as opposed to sitting behind a computer,” he said.

C.J. Connelly is the director of Graves’ project. For now, he’s a volunteer. Graves can’t afford to pay him a full-time salary. That will come later, he hopes, with grant money and more fundraising efforts.

By day, Connelly is an educator, but he spends dozens of hours each week investigating innocence claims. Connelly has pored over documents and interviewed scores of witnesses in the case of Pablo Velez, a Houston man serving 30 years for the fatal 2004 shooting of Emerson Bojorquez outside a Houston pool hall.

Police targeted Velez because the killers’ getaway car, a gold Cadillac, was registered under his name. Velez contends he was at his girlfriend’s place at the time of the murder. He said he sold the Cadillac days before but hadn’t yet changed the title.

Connelly said he might have enough evidence to prove Velez is innocent and the man who bought the Cadillac was the actual killer. The Houston Police Department has agreed to reopen its investigation of the crime. Graves and Connelly also secured a new lawyer for Velez: Patrick McCann, a lawyer who helped in Graves’ exoneration and now serves on the foundation board.

“Anthony has credibility and reach that I would never have had,” Connelly said.

For years before he met Connelly, Velez said, he wrote to dozens of innocence organizations asking for help.

“If my case didn’t have nothing to do with DNA, they didn’t want to bother with it,” he said.

After a decade in prison, he said, he is allowing himself to hope that he’ll be reunited with his 10-year-old daughter, Iris. She was 27 days old when he was convicted. Her name and birthday are tattooed under his left eye.

“I just want to get home to her,” he said.

The case that is perhaps dearest to Graves, though, is Williams’. The two men spent about a decade together on death row. For three years, they were side-by-side in solitary confinement where the only means of communication was the air vent between their cells. They exercised together, doing push-ups and running in place for an hour inside their cells at 5 a.m.

They edited each other’s letters and poems, planned for their futures and consoled one another when friends left for the death house.

Williams called Graves “Milk Dud” because of his shiny bald head. Graves called him “Meathead,” a nickname the beefy former football player’s grandpa had given him.

Williams came to death row filled with spit and vinegar, spoiling for a fight, Graves said, and has transformed into an educated writer whose works inspire others.

“I watched him grow up into a man,” Graves said.

After the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 declared it unconstitutional to execute people who were minors at the time of their crimes, Williams’ sentence was commuted to life in prison. Three courts have overturned his conviction and ruled that he deserves a new trial. Each time, a higher court has reversed that decision.

Graves and Williams contend that faulty ballistics evidence led to the conviction and that a new look at the evidence will show that the fatal bullet did not come from Williams’ gun.

After 24 years in prison - his entire adult life - and three heart-wrenching brushes with freedom, Williams is hesitant to reignite his legal battle. In recent years, he has focused his efforts on pursuing his education - he’s getting a master’s degree - and helping other young men avoid the pitfalls of drugs and violence that put him at the scene of a crime that ruined his life.

Mostly, though, Williams doesn’t want to see his family crushed again. His mother is 65 and lives in California, where he grew up. He last saw her two years ago.

“It makes me feel like a used car salesman selling them false hope,” Williams said, his eyes welling. “It’s tiresome.”

Graves, though, never seems to tire. After years of waking to prison guards’ 3 a.m. breakfast calls, he said he rarely sleeps more than a few hours each night. He’s too busy sending emails and text messages, preparing speeches and working to build his foundation and a community willing to help inmates that he says society has discarded.

This month, Graves opened a small health clinic to provide low-cost and free care to those leaving prison and their families. On one side of the foundation’s rented office space, across the street from a church in a rough Houston neighborhood, are antiseptic-smelling exam rooms with equipment that still has the manufacturers’ stickers. On the other side, Graves and his small cadre of interns and volunteers take calls and read piles of letters from aggrieved inmates.

When he left prison, Graves said, doctors told him his arteries were clogged, the result of poor diet and health care. But he had money to see a doctor. Most recently released inmates don’t. They’re too busy finding a job and housing and reuniting with family to think about their health.

“He needs a fresh start, and that includes his body,” Graves said. Eventually, he also plans to hire caseworkers to help connect former convicts with resources like housing, drug treatment and mental health services to reduce the likelihood they’ll return to prison.

The clinic is just getting off the ground, but Graves has already hired a doctor. Dr. Lester Minto, who lives in Austin, learned about the foundation through a friend and agreed to help out for a minimal fee.

“I’ve always liked the thought of helping people who are less privileged,” he said, “people who don’t fit in the system.”

Paul Cates, spokesman for the New York-based Innocence Project, said many exonerees feel like Graves, compelled to fight for change in a criminal justice system that wrecked their lives. Dallas exoneree Christopher Scott, who was freed in 1999, created the House of Renewed Hope to help other wrongly convicted inmates.

“It doesn’t destroy their souls, and almost all of them somehow find a way to get beyond what happened,” Cates said.

Graves is not oblivious, though, to the steep road ahead for both his foundation and the inmates he wants to help.

He knows he’ll need much more funding to keep his clinic and the innocence project up and running.

He knows that in Texas’ conservative court system, his friend Nanon Williams’ chances for success are slim.

But he’s never been one to let long odds get him down.

“I always stay positive,” he said. “That’s how I came home.”

___

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide