UTAH STATE PRISON — Sean Phillip Graham admits that Anson Arnett was one of the few counselors in his group home that he liked.
“He was one of the few people there who actually cared about us, wanted to help us. He was nice. He was kind, gentle. Could actually tell he wanted to help us,” a tearful Graham told Utah Board of Pardons and Parole pro-tem member Robert Yeates.
That's why Yeates said it’s even harder to understand why Graham and Jesse Simmons beat Arnett with a baseball bat, stuffed him upside down in a small closet, took the keys to one of the group home’s vans and fled to Las Vegas before being captured.
In 2004, when Graham and Simmons were both 17, they attacked Arnett, a counselor at Maximum Life Skills Academy, as part of their plan to escape.
Graham, of Rockville, Md., and Jesse Simmons, of Wilmington, Del., were sent to the academy by their parents to correct behavioral problems. Both were charged with capital murder but were not eligible for the death penalty due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning the execution of people younger than 18.
Graham was convicted of murder, aggravated kidnapping and theft and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
On Oct. 15, Graham, now 32, had his first parole hearing.
During his nearly 50-minute hearing, Graham talked about his troubled childhood, and how on the day of the murder, he and Simmons only wanted to escape.
“Originally the idea was we were just going to run,” he said in a recording of the hearing. “We’ll just knock him out so he can’t call the police when we leave.”
Graham said it was Simmons who struck Arnett on the head from behind with an aluminum baseball bat twice, though Yeates noted that Simmons claimed at his parole hearing in April that Graham also hit Arnett.
“I never struck Mr. Arnett. But I understand I’m just as guilty and just as culpable. I could have stopped it. I could have told him no,” Graham responded.
At no point, Graham said, was the plan to kill Arnett.
“I didn’t even think that could be a possibility. It sounds very naive or childish, but it’s what I thought. You see TV and movies all the time when someone gets hit and they’re right back up,” he said. “I just wanted to get away, sir. I didn’t want to go spend the rest of my life in prison. … I didn’t want to kill anybody. That wasn’t really the intention at all.”
After his arrest, Graham admitted he caused trouble initially while incarcerated and joined a prison gang for protection. He said he was immature and that despair, guilt and shame were eating at him and he didn’t know how to control his emotions.
“I handled everything very, very poorly, sir,” he said.
I think about it all the time. I feel tremendous guilt and shame. I feel tremendous sorrow for their family. Not what I wanted to happen. I feel horrible. I know I can never make it right.
–Sean Phillip Graham
It wasn't until years later and while he was incarcerated in Garfield County that Graham said he started taking advantage of the programs available for inmates and turned his life around.
“Sir, I’ve tried to take advantage of every class, every program that was offered to me. I just tried to work hard to figure out what my core issues are and to change those. I’ve worked really hard at finding self-confidence, self-worth. I worked really hard to try and figure out the man I want to be, the morals and values of that man, and I’ve pushed myself, sir,” he told the parole board.
But Arnett’s family is “firmly against” Graham’s release.
His sister, Ann Kirton, read a letter from their father, Perry Arnett, who described Graham as a “violent predator.”
“It is imperative that we know the whereabouts of these killers at all times, and the best way to do that is to keep them incarcerated in the prison system,” the letter stated.
When giving her own thoughts, Kirton said the murder had “devastated my family and myself.”
She asked Yeates to ask Graham if he ever felt sorry for what happened or had remorse.
“I think about it all the time. I feel tremendous guilt and shame. I feel tremendous sorrow for their family. Not what I wanted to happen. I feel horrible. I know I can never make it right,” Graham responded in tears.
“I’ve worked really, really hard sir, at becoming a different person, a better man. I’m still working on being better, sir. I haven’t always made the best choices. For a while in prison I didn’t even know where to begin. But whenever I did find the opportunities to learn and work on myself I took full advantage of everything I was offered. Throughout the years I’ve always wanted to apologize to the Arnett family,” he said, while stating he was not allowed to contact the family.
Yeates noted during the hearing that despite his rough start in the prison system, Graham had done exceptionally well in recent years. He also said that being 17 at the time of the crime was a mitigating circumstance. That’s why, Yeates said, these types of cases are “very, very difficult” for the board to decide.
“I have a hard time getting my arms around what you guys did,” he said. “The crime was as bad as I’ve seen. But it looks like you’ve really turned things around.”
The full five-member board will now vote on whether or not to grant parole.
Recently, the board granted parole for Graham’s partner, Simmons. He is scheduled to be released in September of 2022.