BROOKLAND – Michael Graham, who spent 14 years in prison and narrowly avoided death by electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit, shared his harrowing tale of wrongful conviction and exoneration at the law school last week.
At the time of his wrongful arrest for a murder in 1985, Graham was living Richmond, Va., where he was unemployed and desperate for a job. Graham described to an audience of some 50 students and professors how he moved to Louisiana in pursuit of temporary work. But he soon found himself in a courtroom accused of murder.
A witness told authorities she saw Graham commit a double murder. But it was later revealed that she had provided a false account. Nonetheless a second witness corroborated the perjured testimony.
Graham’s trial lasted only two days. He couldn’t afford a lawyer and was provided a public defender who had never argued a murder case before. The defense was granted $10,000 — an amount Graham said was inadequate to hire the specialists necessary to support his case. The trial proceeded but Graham’s attorney was ill-equipped to defend him.
Graham was sentenced to death by electric chair.
Five months after sentencing, Graham was taken to the Louisiana State Penitentiary where he was forced to spend 23 hours a day in his cell. He was deprived of all forms of communication except talking to other prisoners through his cell’s bars. Amid the gloom and anxiety of prison life, Graham was devoid of hope, he told the audience.
While in prison, Graham began to receive letters from the witness who falsely testified against him. Over the course of several years she had developed feelings for Graham, which she described in her correspondence. Graham passed along the exchanges to his attorney until eventually they had enough evidence to incriminate the woman for bearing false witness against Graham.
Graham was granted a retrial in 1996 in which the judge dropped the charges against Graham. He was released from prison in December 2000.
As a newly-freed man, Graham joined a group called Resurrection After Exoneration, which helps inmates readjust to life outside prison. Through his participation in the group Graham is now able to help others cope with problems he faced upon release, from overcoming the basic struggle of walking around in public without shackles and handcuffs to more long-term adjustments.
The group also advocates a ban on capital punishment, a cause which Graham strongly supports.
Graham said he doesn’t harbor anger toward those responsible for the 14 years he spent in jail. The emphasis of his message to law students was to take interest in cases such as his, and have faith that their clients are telling the truth about their wrongful arrests or convictions.
While the process of exoneration is slow, Graham said, his story demonstrates that with hard work and determination it is possible to overturn wrongful convictions even for the most serious crimes.
The Tower is the undergraduate student newspaper of The Catholic University of America