Sunday, January 21, 2001
After nearly 14 years on Louisiana's death row, Michael Ray Graham Jr. struggles with everyday life in Roanoke
Man finds that release from death row leads to new tests

He was released from death row after a case review found that there was a lack of evidence against him.

   Michael Ray Graham Jr. never stopped believing in life after death row. 

    For 13 years and 129 days, as he paced his cell in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, he refused to picture himself strapped to the executioner's gurney that waited for him in a nearby prison building. 

    "I knew I was innocent, so I knew that someday I would walk out of there," Graham said last week during an interview at his parents' home in Northeast Roanoke. 

    That day finally came three days after Christmas. Graham was released from death row after an investigation by the state attorney general found "a total lack of credible evidence" linking him to the 1986 murder of an elderly couple. 

    Graham, who was 22 when he headed south with friends for a two-week road trip and wound up spending most of his adult life in prison, got out of Louisiana as fast as he could. 

    He took a Greyhound bus to a city he had seen just once before. All he knew about Roanoke was that this is where his family had moved from Virginia Beach after his capital murder conviction. That was enough. 

    Without his family's support, Graham said, he never would have become one of death row's rare survivors. 

    Over the years, as his family's letters and calls gave him more hope than the slow-moving legal process offered, Graham began to associate Roanoke with the new life he wanted so badly. 

    But as he sat surrounded by his mother and stepfather, Elizabeth and Doug Lam, and younger brothers Robert and Chris on Wednesday afternoon, Graham said the past three weeks have taught him that prison is a place you never completely leave behind. 

    Sometimes when the door shuts behind him in a bedroom or bathroom, his mind sends him back to his 6-by-10-foot cell. 

    As much as he loves the lobster, steak and shrimp dinners he's had, he wolfs them down too quickly. On death row, he had just eight minutes to empty the meal tray that was shoved through a slot in his cell door. 

    When he goes to the mall or a downtown restaurant, he feels that he's done something wrong. "At first, I thought people were looking at me and thinking, 'Why doesn't he have handcuffs and shackles on?'" Graham said. 

    His heart skips a beat at the sight of a passing police car, or a security guard in uniform. "I think: 'Oh, they're coming for me again,'" he said. 

    He would like to meet a potential girlfriend, but can't bring himself to even make eye contact with a woman. They called that "aggravated eyeballing" at the penitentiary, and an inmate who eyed a female guard was thrown into solitary confinement for 30 days. 

    "It's still hard to be around people," Graham said. "I know that I'm free, but you take a little bit of that place with you." 

    The first night Graham spent on death row, they gave him dead man's bed to sleep in. 

    It was the summer of 1987, and Jimmy Glass had just been executed for a double homicide. Graham, who was 23 at the time, was assigned to the empty cell. 

    Somehow, a puddle of water had accumulated on the concrete slab that serves as a bed. Moisture had soaked through the mattress by the time Graham finally lay down. 

    "I thought it was blood, and I just freaked out," he said. "That pretty much set the tone for the next 14 years." 

    As the years passed, "time stood still," Graham said. "Out here, it just zips by." 

    Graham was confined to his cell 23 hours a day. He got one hour to take a shower and use the telephone to make collect calls home. Three times a week, his hour outside the cell could be spent in a recreation yard with razor-toothed fences that separated the inmates from each other. 

    Each day began at 5 a.m. His alarm clock was the sound of guards banging on the bars to announce that breakfast was being served. After that, most inmates went back to sleep. 

    "The mornings were my favorite time of the day because everybody was quiet," Graham said. He spent the time reading, studying his Bible, writing letters to his family and reading the ones they sent him. 

    Each new photograph of his brothers, who are now 21 and 22, that arrived in the mail reminded him of what he was missing. "I could literally take 10 pictures and set them down and see 10 years go by," Graham said. 

    The two-day drive from Roanoke to Angola made visits difficult. "I had to listen to my brothers grow up over the telephone," Graham said. 

    In the summers, 110-degree heat invaded the confines of death row, where air conditioning was nonexistent. Industrial-sized fans hummed all day. Televisions were turned up to be heard over the fans. Voices were raised to be heard over the televisions. 

    Graham used 12-cent earplugs from the prison commissary to block out the noise. 

    But there was no escape from the heat. It got so hot, Graham said, that the concrete sweated. 

    With no work programs to keep him busy and no recreational activities to keep him entertained, Graham occupied his time by following current events. His attorney recalled that during a visit to discuss his court case in 1999, Graham seemed more interested in talking about President Clinton's impeachment. 

    But Graham's life was mainly consumed by boredom. "I had every nook, cranny and crack in the wall of my cell memorized," he said. 

    In the mid-1990s, attorney John Holdridge of the Mississippi and Louisiana Capital Trial Assistance Project took Graham's case. He filed a request for a new trial, based on recanted testimony from state witnesses and evidence withheld by prosecutors. 

    Graham was confident all along he would be exonerated, but the slow pace of the judicial system was maddening. 

    "I was just getting more and more frustrated, and I needed something to give me peace," he said. "I was pacing my cell and I said, 'Lord, I don't know if you're real or not. But if you are, I'd like you to come into my life.'" 

    Graham found religion that day, and the time began to pass more easily. 

    In March, a judge ordered a new trial. After conducting a nine-month investigation, the attorney general's office concluded there was no evidence on which to base a second prosecution. The charges were dismissed in December. 

    Despite spending the prime of his life waiting to die for a crime he did not commit, Graham is not consumed with rage for the prosecutors and police who put him in prison. 

    "I'm angry with them, but not to the point where I lose control," he said. "I don't want to be angry right now. I was angry with the state for 14 years, but right now I want to enjoy my freedom." 

    Nor does he care to dwell on the hardships of death row. 

    "It was a prison," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. "It wasn't no Holiday Inn." 

    In the days ahead, Graham will face some tests. 

    One of them will be administered by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Once he gets his driver's license, Graham hopes to find a used pickup truck and go back to roofing and house framing, the trade he practiced before his conviction. 

    First, he has to get into shape. 

    Graham led such a sedentary life in prison that he can't climb a flight of stairs without having to stop and catch his breath. 

    "Right now, it would be hard for me to do a full day's work," he said. "It's like your body decays in that cell. You just sit there and you rot." 

    He is 37, but says he feels much older. The look in his sunken eyes is that of a man more broken than bitter. 

    Graham is living with his brothers in Vinton. He does not go out of his way to tell neighbors and new acquaintances about his past, nor does he try to hide it when asked. 

    "I just hope people give me a chance and get to know me," he said. "It's a new life, and I hope to make the best of it." 

    It didn't take long for Graham to find a purpose in his new life. "I'm going to help in any way I can to get a moratorium" on the death sentence, either in Virginia or nationwide. 

    Graham said he is willing to talk to lawyers, legislators, church groups - "whatever it takes." 

    "I am totally, 100 percent against the death penalty," he said. "I don't trust the system. I don't think America can handle the death penalty right now." 

    Graham wants to help save others like himself. He hopes there is still time. 

    "For all the time I was on death row, I was hoping that it was a long dream," he said. "Now that I'm free, I'm hoping that it's not a short dream." 

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