If Catholic University law students ever needed a reminder about the singular role lawyers play in society, they got a stark one on Oct. 15 from an exonerated ex-convict named Michael Ray Graham Jr., who had fourteen irreplaceable years stolen from his life by a broken and dysfunctional system of justice.
At the invitation of the Innocence Project chapter at the Columbus School of Law, Graham recounted a nightmare that began in 1987, when he and a co-defendant were wrongfully convicted of a robbery and double murder in Union Parish, Louisiana.
The two men faced the death penalty for the crime and yet the State of Louisiana appointed them two lawyers who had no previous capital trial experience.
Graham and his co-defendant were convicted despite that fact that no physical evidence linked them to the crime. The convictions were based on three witnesses who, unbeknownst to the jury, had personal motives for testifying against the pair.
“I was in shock during the whole trial,” recalled Graham.
In the end, the wrongfully convicted men were sentenced to death and spent 13 of the 14 years they were imprisoned on death row.
Graham did his time in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, one of the nation’s most notorious. In the 1980s, Angola still employed the electric chair for capital punishment, and Graham shared with the student audience his story of a dream, prior to his incarceration, about being wrapped in and electrocuted by telephone wires.
“You could cut the air with a knife. Depression, anxiety, no hope,” said Graham, describing his first walk down the prison’s dark corridors.
The prosecutor who put Graham away, Dan Grady, later said he had recommended against prosecuting the cases because the evidence was too weak, but was pressured to proceed by the Union Parish district attorney in order not to embarrass the recently-elected sheriff.
“As far as I’m concerned, that DA tried to murder us. And that’s got to stop,” Graham said.
All three witnesses eventually recanted their trial testimonies. It was also later found that the prosecutors had withheld key information from the defense, including the fact that their star witness had received a reward in the form of his own charges being reduced before sentencing.
Michael Graham was released from prison on December 28, 2000, and his co-defendant less than a week later. All Graham received was a set of clothes and a check for $10. His lawyer gave him enough money for a bus ticket to his mother's home in Virginia.
Today, he is associated with Resurrection After Exoneration
, a New Orleans-based project that helps wrongfully convicted people to re-engage with life again after their release.