For eight years, Nicole Casarez worked tirelessly to seek justice for death row inmate Anthony Graves.
The Houston-based attorney and journalism professor knew that Graves had been wrongly imprisoned for murder, and she was determined to see him freed.
Finally, in 2010, after spending 18 years in prison -- 12 on them on death row -- Graves was exonerated, largely thanks to the efforts of Casarez and her students at Houston's University of St. Thomas. Several months later, he was awarded $1.4 million by the Texas Legislature for wrongful incarceration, according to ABC News.
Graves told Texas Monthly's Pamela Colloff that he's been wanting to express his immense gratitude to Casarez -- his "angel" and "sister" -- but hasn't quite known how to go about it.
“I wanted to repay Nicole but I knew she’d never accept money from me,” Graves said. “I thought about giving her an amazing trip somewhere, but I wanted to give her something that would live on.”
Finally, after consulting with Casarez's husband, Graves came up with a plan: He would establish a college scholarship in Casarez's name.
According to Texas Monthly, Graves surprised the attorney with his token of thanks during a recent dinner party. After the guests arrived, Graves announced the event was taking place in Casarez's honor. He then asked her to step forward:
Tentatively, she rose from her seat and walked over to Anthony, who handed her a framed certificate. Her jaw dropped when she saw it, and she covered her mouth in surprise. “You’ve been punked!” Anthony said, laughing uproariously. Finally, after he egged her on, she agreed to read the words out loud:
"The University of Texas Law School Foundation Gratefully Acknowledges the
NICOLE B. CÁSAREZ ENDOWED SCHOLARSHIP IN LAW
Established in 2013 with a gift from Anthony Graves to honor his defender, friend, sister, and angel, to recognize her and her students’ work to exonerate him from a wrongful conviction, and to encourage others to follow her example of hope, perseverance, courage, and humility."
Graves confirmed the news on his website this week.
In 2011, Casarez earned the title of Houston's "Best Lawyer" from the Houston Press for her work on Graves' case. She was also recognized as a "Champion of Justice" by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty that same year.
Casarez has said she was not seeking recognition, only truth, in the battle for Graves' freedom. During a speech at a 2011 University of St. Thomas event, Casarez said that Graves' exoneration is proof that we should "never underestimate the power of dedicated people working for good."
“We could look at Anthony’s case as a great tragedy,” Casarez told the audience, according to journalist Ken Fountain. “I could use Anthony’s case to talk about all the flaws in our criminal justice system. But this an opportunity for us to celebrate.”
“It was a victory of love, and we have all enlarged our circles of love,” Casarez later added. “I am a Caucasian, Canadian, single child, and I now have a native Texan, African-American brother."
Graves was convicted of assisting Robert Earl Carter in the 1992 murder of 45-year-old Bobbie Davis, her 16-year-old daughter and her four young grandchildren. Carter, who was executed in 2000, had implicated Graves in the crime.
Shortly before his death, however, Carter provided a sworn statement saying that he had lied about Graves' involvement.
"Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it … I lied on him in court," were some of Carter's last words before his execution, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Graves wrote about his experience in prison in a blog post for The Huffington Post in July. Read it here.