The Justice Project - Profile of Injustice

Michael Graham

Michael Graham spent 14 years on death row in Louisiana for a crime he did not commit. Represented at trial by two inexperienced attorneys, one of whom abandoned the case before the sentencing phase, Graham was convicted of murder in 1987. The case against Graham consisted of three witnesses, who later recanted their testimony, and a prosecution that withheld evidence of his innocence. In March of 2000, with the help of pro-bono lawyers, Graham won a new trial. He was freed from prison nine months later on December 28th. After 14 years of wrongful imprisonment, the state of Louisiana gave Graham a $10 check and an overcoat that was five sizes too big. By the time of his release, Graham had spent half of his adult life on death row.


United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Testimony of Michael Graham
Freed Death Row Inmate
In Support of the Innocence Protection Act
June 27, 2001

My name is Michael Graham. In 1986, I was 22 years old, working as a roofer, and living with my mom and my two little brothers in Virginia Beach. That summer, I met a family from Louisiana and got friendly with their son, Kenneth. They suggested that I return with them to Louisiana for a vacation. I took up their offer.

While down in Louisiana, Kenneth and I got arrested for writing some bad checks. I was no angel back then, but I never physically hurt anyone, and was never accused of hurting anyone. That is, until a couple of months later. While in jail for the bad checks, I was arrested for the brutal murders of an elderly couple. I couldn’t believe it. I told the police that I didn’t know anything about the murders and had never met the couple.

All the time, I was sure that the truth would come out and I would be found innocent. It seems funny now, but I even asked one of my public defenders if he would represent me in my false arrest lawsuit.

My trial was in early 1987. One of my two lawyers had some criminal law experience, but had never tried a death penalty case. My other lawyer had just graduated from law school. The state didn’t have any physical evidence against me. Basically, all it had was three witnesses, including a jailhouse snitch with a history of serious mental illness.

My lawyers had a tough time at the trial. They didn’t investigate the snitch’s deal with the prosecution. They didn’t know the rules of evidence. They didn’t object to a jury instruction that I later learned was totally illegal under Louisiana law. And they did nothing to prepare for my sentencing phase. They didn’t even ask my mother to come down and testify on my behalf. My trial only lasted a few days. When the jury convicted me of capital murder, I was stunned. So was my experienced lawyer, who disappeared. That left my inexperienced lawyer, just out of law school, to handle the sentencing hearing by himself. When the jury sentenced me to death, I could hardly talk - I was in such a state of shock.

A few months later, my co-defendant, Albert Burrell, was also convicted and given a death sentence. I understand that his lawyers were even worse than mine.

I’ll never forget my first night on death row. The night before the state had executed another inmate, and I was given his cell. During the night, I looked down at the floor and completely freaked out. I thought I saw a pool of blood. It turned out to be rusty water.

That pretty much set the tone for the next fourteen years. I spent 23 hours a day in my 5 by 10 foot cell, alone. I was allowed out one hour a day to shower and walk up and down my tier. Three times a week I could go outside and spend an hour by myself in an exercise yard. Whenever I left my tier, my hands and legs were shackled. Everyone in my world was either a prison guard who considered me an animal or a condemned man. The guards told me when to wake up and when to go to sleep, and just gave me a few minutes to eat.

I tried not to go crazy by reading and praying to the Lord. I also passed the time by trying to keep up on my case and what was happening in the outside world. I studied for a GED, but the prison ended the program right before I was going to take the test.

Each day I would beg the Lord to make sure nothing happened to my family. My family is poor and my mother was only able to visit me twice. My brothers never made it down. The Lord answered my prayers. But my co-defendant wasn’t so fortunate. Albert’s mother died while we were on death row. One of the guards told me that telling Albert his mother was dead was one of the hardest things he ever did.

As in many cases, there was no DNA evidence to exonerate me and Albert. But we were two of the lucky ones. We both had pro bono lawyers who worked their tails off for us and stuck with our cases for many years. If we had depended on state lawyers, we probably would still be on death row, or worse.

After years of hard work, my attorneys got me a new trial on March 3, 2000. It was the second greatest day in my life. My lawyers proved that the prosecution had withheld evidence showing I was innocent. They also proved that the jailhouse snitch was a pathological liar, and got sworn statements from the other two witnesses recanting their testimony. They even got a statement from the prosecutor saying that the case should never have been brought in the first place because the evidence was too weak.

Ten long months later, in December, the state dismissed the case against me and Albert. The Attorney General said that there was “a total lack of credible evidence” linking us to the crime. On December 28, 2000 - the best day in my life - I was released from Louisiana’s death row, where I had spent close to 14 years for two murders I did not commit. I was the 92nd innocent person released from death row since 1973. Albert was released a few days later, and became the 93rd innocent person released from death row.

Half of my adult life had been taken from me. I had been falsely branded as a murderer in connection with horrible crimes. Meanwhile, the suffering family of the victims was misled into believing that the crime was solved, when in fact the real murderer or murderers had not been brought to justice.

In compensation, the state gave me a $10 check and a coat that was five sizes too big. Not even the price of a bus ticket back to Virginia. My lawyers had to buy that for me. At first, when I got back to my family in Virginia, I was afraid to go out. I thought people would guess from my complexion that I had just come out of prison. I couldn’t stop guzzling down my food and pacing the floor. Men in uniforms freaked me out.

Nowadays, I am just trying to put my life back together. I am getting to know my family again, including my brothers who are now young men. I have a job as a roofer, and I am getting married in October.

During my 14 wasted years on death row, I always hoped that my nightmare would count for something. That’s why I’m here today. Mistakes like my nightmare are real. I never figured that this could happen to an innocent person before it happened to me, and I am sure that many people listening today feel the same way. I ask you to listen to my story and to the many others like mine, and do what you can to fix the process.