By HARVEY RICEHOUSTON CHRONICLE
GALVESTON — To Anthony Graves, the loss of a $250 speaking fee seemed like the final indignity heaped upon him by the state of Texas.
Graves spent 18 years behind bars, 12 of them on death row, for a crime that prosecutors now say he didn’t do.
After he was freed in October, the Texas comptroller’s office refused the compensation provided by law for those who are unjustly convicted.
Then the Texas Attorney General’s Office began garnisheeing his wages for child support that a judge decided Graves owed even though he was on death row at the time. But when they blocked payment of the $250 fee he earned for a presentation to students at Prairie View A&M University, it was too much.
“If you feel I owe some compensation, fine, I’m not crying about that, but don’t go after everything I make,” said Graves, 45. “I’m tired of the state kicking me.”
The Attorney General’s Office is garnisheeing $175 of the $3,000 monthly salary he earns as an investigator for Texas Defenders Service, an organization that represents death penalty defendants.
Graves owes either $5,420 or $5,403, according to the Attorney General’s Office, which cited the two child support figures in letters to Graves.
A Washington County judge decided in 2002 that Graves owed back child support from 1998 until 2002, even though he was on death row the entire time, according to Graves’ attorney Nicole Casarez.
‘Sympathy’ from state
Jeff Blackburn, another member of Graves’ legal team, said Attorney General Greg Abbott was retaliating for a lawsuit Graves filed to force the state to pay his compensation.
“Abbott is clearly a vindictive guy and he’s just ordering this retaliation,” Blackburn declared. “It’s a completely immoral position, and to me it proves that Greg Abbott is at best a hypocrite and at worst just a cruel monster.”
The state comptroller refused to pay Graves the $80,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment provided by law because the order dismissing the capital murder charges did not contain the words “actual innocence,” as the statute requires.
Graves has sued the attorney general, asking for a declaration of actual innocence, but Abbott’s office said the law does not allow the attorney general to make such a declaration.
Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland responded, “While we are deeply offended by the ridiculous and meritless claims lodged by Anthony Graves’ counsel, this office has nothing but sympathy for Mr. Graves. His experience is truly troubling and deeply compelling.”
Strickland said the system that tagged Graves for child support payments is automated and handles 1.2 million cases. The child support division “regularly files wage withholding orders without any involvement from the executive office,” Strickland said. “And that is exactly what happened in this case.”
He said the Attorney General’s Office is obligated to collect the money that the court has ordered be paid.
Strickland said he couldn’t comment on details of the case without permission from the mother of Graves’ son, now 27.
Blackburn said he intends to sue the attorney general to have the payments rescinded.
Big crowd, but no check
The loss of the fee that fueled Graves’ growing frustration began with an invitation from the political science department at Prairie View A&M University.
Graves, Casarez and an attorney from Texas Defenders spoke to an overflow crowd April 20 about his case. Casarez recalled that students were jammed behind them on the stage and spilled into the hallways.
The university offered Graves a $250 honorarium to compensate him for his travel expenses and time.
On Wednesday, Graves asked Casarez to find out why he hadn’t received the payment. She was forwarded an email from a Prairie View professor saying the money had been withheld because Graves owed child support.
“The state of Texas tried to kill me for something I didn’t do and now they are trying to get child support out of me,” Graves said. He noted that the Attorney General’s Office persisted in prosecuting him for four years after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction in 2006.
“I feel powerless,” he said.
Casarez said that her client has another speaking engagement at the University of Texas that he probably won’t be paid for because of the child support.
Graves not the first
Convicts often are stuck with enormous child support payments after leaving prison, but the law makes no provision for those who were unjustly convicted, said Michael McCormick, executive director of the American Coalition of Fathers and Children.
“I’m not aware of any state where it says a wrongly convicted individual is relieved of their obligation,” McCormick said.
Graves isn’t the first in Texas to be found innocent of capital murder and forced to pay child support. The wages of Clarence Brandley, cleared in 1997 of the rape-strangulation of 16-year-old girl in Conroe, were garnisheed to pay $25,640 in child support.
Graves was convicted of the 1992 slayings of a grandmother and five children. Robert Carter, who confessed to the killings, absolved Graves of the crime in his final statement moments before his execution in 2000. He said he lied during his testimony against Graves.
The federal appeals court found that the prosecution withheld statements crucial to the defense and elicited false statements from witnesses during the 1994 trial.