Baylor law students reviewing one of Waco's most gripping capital murder cases
Thursday, April 10, 2008
By Cindy V. Culp
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A local attorney has launched an innocence project at Baylor University, choosing one of the most gripping cases in McLennan County history as the group’s first assignment.
Since February, Walter M. Reaves Jr. and three Baylor Law School students have been poring over evidence from the 1988 trial of Ed Graf. The Hewitt resident was convicted of killing his two stepsons by burning them alive in a storage shed behind their home. He is serving a life sentence in a Gatesville prison.
Reaves, who aided in the DNA exoneration of a Waco man in 2001, said his ultimate goal is to get Graf released. Based on conversations with Graf and a fresh look at the evidence, he believes the group has a chance.
“I think we’re going to be able to show (the fire) was not intentionally set,” said Reaves, whose group is not affiliated with The Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, and to reforming the criminal justice system.
Reaves said he has wanted to get a local innocence project going for several years. Several dozen universities across the country have such projects.
The timing worked out this year because of a new emphasis the law school has put on finding opportunities for students to do pro bono work in the community. The innocence project is a good addition to that effort, said associate dean Leah Jackson.
“We’re excited about giving our students opportunities to work with real lawyers who do real work,” Jackson said. “The fact that injustice may have been involved in the situation and that they might be finally righting it obviously excited us from a couple of angles.”
So far the students have been learning about fire science and reading trial testimony from the case. They meet with Reaves once a week and are eligible to receive academic credit for their work. But the students said they signed up for the project simply because they’re interested in criminal law.
Rachel Sonstein, who will graduate in August, said she has enjoyed learning how to articulate the details of something she previously knew nothing about — in this case, fire science. That skill is sure to be useful in her career, she said.
Tray Gober, another third-year student, said his favorite part of the project has been digging up old documents and other information related to the case.
“I like the detective part of it,” he said.
Eventually, Reaves said, he hopes the Baylor project grows enough so that students can handle cases from start to finish. That would mean screening letters from prisoners and their families and choosing which ones have merit.
To start, though, Reaves said he wanted to use a case he had already done some work on. The Graf case fit the bill because he has previously looked at the fire science pivotal in the conviction. Many of the techniques used by fire investigators at the time have since been disproved, he said. As a result, the outcomes of arson murder cases as a whole are being questioned.
Reaves previously worked on the case of Corsicana resident Cameron Todd Willingham. He was executed in February 2004 after being convicted of setting a 1991 fire that killed his three young daughters.
Reaves said the Graf case offers as good an opportunity as students will get to prove innocence. Most of the cases in which DNA testing could set someone free have already been identified, he said.
The next frontier of exonerations will be in cases that involved “junk science,” Reaves predicted. The faulty methods used in arson investigations make them a prime place to start.
Plus, the Innocence Project, the national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people, has established an arson review board made up of the top five arson experts in the nation. If the board examines a case and determines a fire was not intentionally set, that’s about as close to ironclad exoneration as someone can get outside of DNA, Reaves said.
Reaves said he hopes the review board will agree to look at the Graf case. Beyond the fire investigation, though, he acknowledges circumstantial evidence in the case might be hard for some people to dismiss.
For example, the boys’ mother testified Graf put off shopping for the boys’ school clothes the August they died. When they finally went shopping, Graf insisted the tags be left on the clothing until school started and that the boys keep the receipts. After the fire, he returned the clothes to the store even though she told him she wanted to save them, she told the jury.
Another detail brought out during trial was that Graf supposedly told his wife when she got to the house that day that they had lost both boys. At that point, officials said they had told him only of finding one body.
Deciding someone’s guilt on such measures is not prudent, Reaves said. Once someone is painted as a criminal, almost any action they take can be construed to fit that theory, he said, even though there may be innocent explanations for it.
Reaves also said there was no direct evidence linking Graf to the crime. Although he was home at the time of the fire, no one saw him go out to the shed that day and no physical evidence was found tying him to the crime.
The group hasn’t gotten far enough in its work to make a final determination about what likely happened, Reaves said. But the most logical explanation based on what he has seen so far is that the fire was accidentally set by the boys, he said.
Reaves points to court testimony that the boys had played with matches and lit cigarettes before. At the time of the fire, Joby Allen Graf was 9 and Jason Cory Graf was 8.
Both died from smoke inhalation and severe burns. Their bodies were found in a storage shed behind the family’s house on Angel Fire Drive in Hewitt. The state fire marshal’s office investigator later said he believed at least two of the shed’s three locks were bolted at the time of the fire in late August 1986.
Former McLennan County District Attorney Vic Feazell, who prosecuted the case, said he has no doubt Graf set the fire. Although much of the evidence was circumstantial, it was a strong case.
“The jury convicted him,” he said. “They heard all the evidence.”
Whatever happens, Reaves said, he feels a moral responsibility to work on it and other potential wrongful convictions. He said he believes the biblical edict that people will be judged by how they treat the “least among us.”
Prisoners certainly fall into that category, he said.
“I don’t want to be in a position of explaining (to God) why I didn’t help someone out when they dropped in my lap,” he said.