HOUSTON -- Anthony Graves said he's dreamed of freedom for 18 years while sleeping behind bars for murders that he didn't commit. But now that the 45-year-old Brenham man has been exonerated and released from custody, he and his lawyers admit they aren't sure what he'll do next.
His sudden release on Wednesday came as a shock, which is only now wearing off.
Graves was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death in the early '90s for the murders of Bobby Joyce Davis, 45; her 16-year-old daughter, Nicole; and four children between the ages 4 and 9. The six victims were found shot and stabbed multiple times inside a Somerville house that was set on fire to conceal the evidence.
Most of the case against Graves was based on the testimony of Robert Earl Carter, who admitted to the murders and said Graves helped him.
Carter later recanted that statement before Graves' trial, but prosecutors withheld from Graves' attorneys evidence that could have exonerated him, and Carter still testified against Graves during Graves' trial.
Carter's wife was also indicted for the murders, and Graves' lawyers have suggested that then-Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta threatened to pursue the charges against her if Carter didn't testify.
Carter was executed in 2000, but recanted again moments before his death.
"It was me and me alone," Carter said, according to published reports. "Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. I lied on him in court."
A federal appeals court overturned Graves' conviction in 2006. He's spent the past four years awaiting retrial in the Burleson County Jail.
That is, until Wednesday, when the case's new prosecutors declared that he was innocent. That surprising twist was still sinking in on Thursday.
"It's still not real for me," he said as he met with reporters in the office of one of his Houston lawyers. "For 18 years I slept in steel doors and one day I walk out. It's hard to even process."
Graves wore a gray suit and tie his lawyers bought him in preparation for a February retrial. Along with a bag full of personal items from jail and some cards his family gave him on Thursday, the clothes are his only possessions.
When asked to describe his time behind bars, Graves summed it up with one word. "Hell," he said. "There is no need to even elaborate. Just hell. When you think about hell, there it is."
But Graves' lawyers said their client kept a positive attitude and never gave up.
"I wasn't just going to lay down and die for something they did wrong," Graves said, referring to Burleson County authorities. "I knew one day justice would come of this."
Three Houston lawyers are representing Graves: Katherine Scardino, Jimmy Phillips, Jr. and Nicole Casarez. Scardino and Phillips joined the case in 2007. Casarez is a journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. She began helping Graves in 2002 and has enlisted the help of about 10 students in researching the murders.
They said their focus will now turn to two things: What will Graves do next, and can the people responsible for sending him to death row be punished?
Under state law passed in 2009, exonerees are entitled to $80,000 for each year they were incarcerated. They are also eligible for job training, college tuition and medical and dental care.
But Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, who helped write the Texas law, said Graves might not qualify because the exonoree must be cleared by the Criminal Court of Appeals or pardoned by the governor before receiving payment.
Blackburn, who has done legal work for Graves, said Graves hasn't applied for a pardon from Gov. Rick Perry and the case wont go before the Criminal Court of Appeals because it has been dropped. He said he would work with Graves' lawyers in the coming days to plan their next step.
"Right now it is way too early to call because it will take some hardcore legal analysis," Blackburn said. "We will do a lot of work in the next few days."
If the state decides Graves is eligible for payment, he would receive about $1.4 million.
Burleson County District Attorney Bill Parham and special prosecutor Kelly Siegler stressed on Thursday that Graves was innocent -- as opposed to there just not being enough evidence to convict him of guilt. Siegler, a high-powered former assistant district attorney in Harris County, called the case "horrible" during a conference with reporters.
She accused the original prosecutor on the case of hiding and tampering with evidence and eliciting false testimony.
"Charles Sebesta handled this case in a way that could best be described as a criminal justice system nightmare," she said.
Lawyers said the statute of limitations made any prosecution of Sebesta unlikely. For his part, Sebesta has continued to publicly proclaim Graves' guilt.
Graves showed no signs of anger on Thursday as he met with more than a dozen reporters. He said he only wanted to spend time with his family and move on with his life.
"I'm not going to give them that energy," he said. "I gave them 18 years. So I'm ready to live now. I've got to give that to God."