From the Hometown News
Richard S. "Dick" Graham went largely unrecognized for helping to free an innocent man until the publishing of a book that chronicled how, as an attorney, he worked to get the innocent man, Jesse Daniels, released from a mental institution.
In June, a bust of Mr. Graham will be placed in honor of his efforts to free Jesse Daniels and for the many other ways he served the community. The bust was approved by the Daytona Beach City Commission Feb. 1. The unveiling will be at Bethune Plaza in the Riverfront Esplanade in Daytona Beach.
Mr. Graham said in a phone interview he was “surprised and thankful” for the recognition and the book detailing his work in freeing Mr. Daniels. “I was 28 years old, I think, when I did it. I’m 80 know, it’s been so long now, I didn’t think anyone would pick up on it.”
Blanche Knowles, the wife of businessman and community leader Joe Knowles, reported being raped by a black man in 1957 in Leesburg. Mr. Knowles was concerned people would look down on him and his wife because the rapist was African American.
It was this concern that led Sheriff Willis McCall to frame the Knowles’ neighbor, Jesse Daniels, a mentally challenged 19-year-old white male.
Mr. Daniels was forced to confess and immediately sent to a mental institution in Chattahoochee, where the doctors were pressured by Sheriff McCall to deem him unfit to stand trial. He remained confined to the mental institution.
Thanks to Mr. Graham, reporter Mabel Chesley and Mr. Daniels’ mother, he was released in 1971. Ms. Chesley was known as Mabel Norris Reese at the time. She was determined to uncover all the corruption within Lake County. It was she who put Mr. Daniels in touch with Mr. Graham.
He praised Ms. Chesley’s efforts. “She was tireless on this. She kept me going. She was so wanting to get justice.”
Mr. Graham continued, “She went right after them (Sheriff McCall and the others involved in the cover-up.) I think it wouldn’t have happened without her.”
He took the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the form of a writ of habeas corpus. The court wanted a reason from Lake County as to why Mr. Daniels was in the institution. Then Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals joined with the U.S. Supreme Court in wanting an answer. Naturally, there was no answer, and Mr. Daniels was released.
After his release, the two would see each other around town. Mr. Daniels attended a center that helped the handicapped near the attorney's office. “He’d come over for cigarette money,” Mr. Graham recalled.
The book that sheds light on Mr. Daniels' case is “Beneath a Ruthless Sun,” published in 2018 and written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Gilbert King.
Mr. King is pleased Mr. Graham is receiving the bust. “I think it’s just so appropriate,” he said in a phone interview. “It was the case that was most important to him in his whole legal career.” He described Mr. Graham as the “sweetest, warmest guy.” Underscoring the point, he said, “I just think he is a remarkable human being.”
A longtime colleague and friend of Mr. Graham, John Upchurch, had similar praise. “Richard Graham is a gifted lawyer, yet one of the most humble men I’ve known,” he wrote in an email. On honoring Mr. Graham, Mr. Upchurch replied, “It brings home to me that ordinary people, when motivated and inspired, are capable of great things.” He noted the significance Mr. King’s book had in this moment. Mr. Upchurch’s son, Thomas, also a lawyer, led the effort to commission the bust.
Palm Coast sculptor Paul Baliker said he is “honored” to be commissioned for the work. In a phone interview, he described Mr. Graham as “an outstanding individual. I’ve run into him throughout my life. He’s high quality. I can’t imagine him being anything but fair in anything that he did.”
Mr. King brought Mr. Graham and Mr. Daniels together decades after his release for “a sweet reunion,” the author said.
Mr. Graham recalled of the meeting, “I didn’t know if he’d remember me or not.” But then Mr. Daniels mentioned the car Mr. Graham drove back in the day, and that was proof he remembered.
“In no way was he unable to reason,” Mr. Graham said. “He might have (had) a little trouble getting by on his own, because he didn’t understand money.” Mr. Daniels died in 2018. Mr. Graham attended the funeral services. He believes Ms. Chesley was there as well.
The rapist is believed to be a black man, as Ms. Knowles initially reported, by the name of Sam Wiley Odom. Sheriff McCall used his influence to have Mr. Odom executed for a different rape charge he had been arrested for so he couldn't be implicated in the rape of Ms. Knowles. Sheriff McCall died in 1994.
Mr. Graham was born and raised in DeLand. He and his wife lived in Daytona Beach before settling in Ormond Beach, “because we liked it so much,” Mr. Graham said. He has served the community in many ways. As a soldier in the U.S. Army, lawyer, judge, former member of the Florida House of Representatives and, upon retiring from the bench, worked as a circuit court mediator for Mr. Upchurch’s firm until late last year.
He also was the first recipient of the Richard S. Graham Power of the Law Award presented by the Volusia County Bar Association. “That was a big deal,” Mr. Graham said of the award. “Very special.”
As for retirement, Mr. Graham is “having fun.” He works “on stocks and things like that. Just trying to find things to do to keep me busy.”