92nd death row inmate freed since '73

Jan. 5, 2001 

Michael Ray Graham Jr. walked off death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola 3 days after Christmas wearing a prison issue denim jacket that swam on his slight frame. He was carrying 2 manila envelopes containing all his worldly possessions. 

After 14 years in prison and with the state dismissing all charges against him because of "a total lack of credible evidence" linking him to  the crime for which he w as convicted, all that Mr. Graham received in compensation was a $10 check from the prison for transportation. 

"I thought about framing it," Mr. Graham, 37, who had worked as a roofer before he went to prison, said in a telephone interview yesterday from his mother's home in Roanoke, Va. 

It had taken him 24 hours on a Greyhound bus to get home. The ticket cost $127. One of his lawyers, Michele Fournet, paid for it. 

Albert Ronnie Burrell, 45, was convicted, in a separate trial, of the same crime as Mr. Graham, the 1986 murder of an elderly couple in northern Louisiana, and he also spent nearly 14 years on death row at Angola. The state also dismissed all charges against him at the end of December, and Mr. Burrell, who is retarded and cannot read or write, came within 17 days of execution in 1996. He was released from death row on Tuesday. He was also issued a denim jacket several sizes too large and a $10 check for transportation. Mr. Burrell climbed into his stepsister Estelle's pickup truck and rode to her small ranch in East Texas. 

"I didn't have nothing to do with that," Mr. Burrell said in a telephone interview today, referring to the crime. 

Mr. Burrell and Mr. Graham bring to 8 the number of wrongfully convicted death-row inmates exonerated nationwide in the past year. 92 death-row inmates have been exonerated since the death penalty was reinstated in 1973. 

The cases of Mr. Graham and Mr. Burrell, which are almost identical, are examples of serious prosecutorial misconduct, their lawyers say. With no physical evidence linking either to the crime, the 2 men were convicted largely on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch, Olan Wayne Brantley, who a law enforcement official acknowledged was known as Lyin' Wayne. 

Mr. Brantley said that both men, while in jail, had confessed to killing the elderly couple. Mr. Brantley admitted at his trial that he had spent time in several mental hospitals, for manic depression, and that he had written so many bad checks that he could not keep track of them. 

No witness put them at the scene of the killing, nor did ballistics tests of their guns link them to the deaths. 

In granting a new trial for Mr. Graham last March, a district judge found, among other things, that the prosecution did not disclose that a plea agreement had been made with Mr. Brantley and that Mr. Brantley had previously been found to be mentally incompetent. The judge also noted that the prosecutor in the case, Dan Grady, had given an affidavit saying 
that he viewed the case against Mr. Graham and Mr. Burrell as "so weak that the case should never have been brought to the grand jury." 

The kind of prosecutorial misconduct in the cases of the two men is not unusual, said Mr. Graham's lawyer, Ms. Fournet. 

"It is a problem that is inherent in the criminal justice system," Ms. Fournet said. 

In the interview today, Mr. Graham said he was trying hard not to be bitter about what had happened. 

"I don't like being angry," Mr. Graham said. "I am, but I can keep it under control. I really haven't sat down and thought about how angry I can be." 

The first few days he was home, he was afraid to leave the house, he said. 

"It just feels like they're looking at me like, aren't you supposed to be in jail," he said. "Why don't you have handcuffs and shackles on?" 

Mr. Graham said he was hoping to get a driver's license and a secondhand truck so he could go back to work as a roofer. Besides paying his bus fare home, Ms. Fournet gave him $100 when he left death row. 

"I'm down to about eight dollars," Mr. Graham said. "I've bought cigarettes, clothes. We went out to eat a few times." 

As for the $10 check from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Mr. Graham said he no longer had it. 

"We got in Atlanta about 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning," he said. "I was feeling so good to be free. When I jumped off the bus, I saw a guy sitting on a ledge. He was asking for change, and he was cold. I remembered the check and went across the street and cashed it for him. I was happy to give it to him." 

Every inmate who is released from Angola is given a $10 check for transportation, regardless of where they are heading. 

"We can't afford to send them out of state," said Cathy Fontenot, a prison spokeswoman. "We're not responsible for getting them home. They could ask to go to Africa or Australia." 

Exonerations of death-row inmates like Mr. Graham and Mr. Burrell, and the concerns they raise about the possibility of executing an innocent person, have led to growing criticism about the fairness of the administration of the death penalty. While support for the death penalty is still high, at 66 %, it is the lowest in 19 years, and experts say the exonerations are largely responsible for the decline. 

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