Wednesday, September 22, 2010

We Stand Witness To A Monstrous Wrong

Leonard Pitts compares the Anthony Graves case to a a TV western:

There's been a vicious killing. Everybody knows who did it -- or thinks they know -- and the posse wants to string the varmint up. No need for the bother of a trial. The crime was outrageous, people are furious. So get the rope, find a tree.

Anthony Graves was arrested 18 years ago for the brutal murder of a woman, her 16-year-old daughter and four children. After the beating and shooting, the house was set ablaze.

As Pitts writes in his column, of course placed on the last page of the newspaper:

No physical evidence linked Graves to the crime. He had no motive to butcher six strangers. Three witnesses placed him at home at the time of the murders.

Graves was convicted and sentenced to death on the testimony of Robert Carter, the father of one of the victims.

Pitts notes that Carter had shown up to his son's funeral with his hands, neck and ears heavily bandaged, the result, he said, of having accidentally burned himself while doing yard work.

He, Carter, then admitted his guilt - he admitted committing the brutal murders. He admitted prior to his own execution that Graves was innocent.

Check out Texas Monthly magazine for more of the story.

Pitts explains the mood of this small Texas town at the time:

It was an awful crime, and people needed to see someone punished for it. Indeed, Somerville mayor Tanya Roush told the Austin American Statesman her town was impatient with the idea of a trial. "They're saying, `Bring back the hangin' tree, and save the taxpayers' money."

And Pitts states the obvious:

Graves is a victim of, and may yet become a martyr to, that need to see someone punished. Unfortunately, there is often an inverse relationship between that need and justice. The more you have of the former, the less likely you are to find the latter.

We stand witness to a monstrous wrong perpetrated out of that vestigial sense of frontier justice in the American psyche which says some crimes are so heinous they demand we bypass niggling questions of evidence, motive, proof, even fairness, on the way to the hanging tree.

Some crimes leave communities outraged and demanding punishment and there are those who say those emotions are the reason we must put people to death.

Prosecutors will re-try Graves in February.

I've made this argument before, that Justice is never innocence, it is always a conviction. When there is an acquittal or exoneration, the public cries that the victim didn't "get justice." The notion of "justice" for the defendant is a non-issue, as we don't see our system as a place for people to be acquitted, it is a factory of guilt.

Anthony Graves appears to be innocent, but the discretion of the prosecutors in the case will be thrown to 12 strangers in a jury box, in a small Texas town looking for "justice."

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer.Share/Save/ rules Post to Twitter