Ed Graf was convicted of the arson murders of his two stepsons in 1986 and sentenced to life in prison with parole. He became eligible in 2008. For 28 years, he maintained his innocence. His conviction was based upon expert testimony that is considered today to be junk science. The Texas Court of Appeals granted Graf a new trial last year based upon the false expert testimony. The retrial ended in a surprising fashion. While the jury was deliberating, Graf accepted a plea deal offer from the prosecution. According to Dave Mann of the Texas Observer, that doesn’t mean that justice was served originally even if by specious evidence:
“I think at first when he pled guilty earlier this week, a lot of people were surprised. And as the details of his plea agreement emerged, it began to make more sense. His plea agreement stipulates that he’ll get a 60-year sentence. [Which makes him eligible for mandatory release now based upon a law at the time of the offense]…he’ll actually be able to get out in a few months. So essentially Ed Graf kind of gave up his quest for innocence [in exchange] for the opportunity to get out of prison…”
According to reports, the jury was leaning toward a guilty verdict, which might have also spurred Graf to plead guilty. Initially the vote was 10 guilty to 2 not guilty. As deliberations wore on into their 11th hour, the prospect of a mistrial became more real to the attorneys and that’s when the prosecution offered a plea deal. Even Graf’s own attorneys were reportedly surprised he accepted it. Interestingly, reports indicate that the bailiff was entering the courtroom with a guilty verdict in hand just as the agreement was signed. Keep in mind, that was the same jury that asked the judge how many votes it takes to make a verdict unanimous.
Almost everything that arson investigators believed indicated an arson at the time Graf was charged has since been debunked. Many people served decades in prison or are still serving time in prison based upon what is now known to be junk science.
Today’s arson science indicated that the Graf fire was an accident.
The Texas Innocence Project who worked on Graf’s case said after the surprise change in plea that the most important thing is reexamining cases to make sure whether someone is innocent or guilty. They went on to say that it was important that the correct science and evidence was presented to the jury, no matter the outcome of the trial. It never hurts, especially when it is discovered that the person is innocent.
Graf pled guilty to two counts of murder.
Authorities in Texas especially have been reexamining their arson convictions. Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 based upon faulty science. Graf’s case was one of the highest-profile cases being restudied by experts and officials. The State Fire Marshal’s Office is working with the Innocence Project to review problematic cases and has flagged several.
Jeff Blackburn, of the IPT, didn’t see Graf’s conclusion as a setback, “The most important thing is that we get [it] right…”
Prosecutors alleged that Graf locked his stepsons, ages 8 and 9, in a backyard shed in 1986 and set it on fire. They alleged his motive was a life insurance payout. The State Fire Marshall’s Office review panel concluded that the fire science in the Graf case was incorrect. The panel said that the state experts misinterpreted burn marks and other arson indicators. At the retrial prosecutors opted not to present forensic evidence, as it no longer supported their contentions, and instead went with a circumstantial case.
Friday, Ed Graf was transferred to a new prison and could get out in less than a week. His attorneys Walter Reaves and Michelle Tuegel attempted to visit him at McLennan County Jail and were told that he had already been taken to Huntsville for processing. Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said Graf will be released after processing.
He is eligible for mandatory release according to the plea agreement, a law in place at the time of the offense, and because his more than two decades in prison adds up to more than 60 years with good behavior factored in. Graf will be supervised for 32 years.
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna has vowed to fight Graf’s release.