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Charles Sebesta needs to be held accountable

Amen to this.

Anthony Graves

Former Texas death row inmate Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years behind bars before he was exonerated in the bloody 1992 slaying of a Somerville grandmother, her daughter and four grandchildren, is seeking justice against the man who put him there.

In 2006, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Graves’ capital murder conviction when a three-judge panel said he deserved a new trial after ruling that Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta elicited false statements from two witnesses and withheld two statements that could have changed the minds of jurors.

Graves, who was released from prison in October 2010, is taking advantage of a new state law that allows a grievance against a prosecutor to be filed within four years of a wrongfully imprisoned person’s release.

State Sens. Rodney Ellis, John Whitmire and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, all Houston Democrats, stood behind Graves on the campus of Texas Southern University on Monday as he and his attorneys urged the Texas State Bar to investigate and discipline Sebesta.

“I am asking prosecutors who operate with the highest integrity to support me,” Graves, 48, told reporters. “I am seeking justice for the man who wrongfully prosecuted me.”

[...]

Graves and his attorney, Bob Bennett, said the new law remedies the statute of limitations rule.

“There’s been no final order,” Bennett said. “Even if it was dismissed, you still have the option of coming back because there’s been no final order.”

Whitmire and Thompson sponsored the bill that was one of several that passed last year as details of Michael Morton’s wrongful murder conviction and exoneration came to light.

Anthony Graves deserves justice in the same way and for the same reasons as Michael Morton. In many ways, the injustice done to Graves was worse. If you’re not familiar with Anthony Graves, read this report by Texas Monthly writer Pamela Colloff, who is the authoritative source on Graves and Morton. That article was published on the day that Graves was freed after the charges against him were dropped.

Not until yesterday morning did Burleson County district attorney Bill Parham and special prosecutor Kelly Siegler explain why they had made such a dramatic about-face. At a press conference at the D.A.’s office in Brenham—just across the street from the courthouse where Graves’s retrial was to have taken place early next year—Parham told reporters that he was “absolutely convinced” of Graves’s innocence after his office conducted a thorough examination of his case. Parham was clear that this was not a matter of having insufficient evidence to take to trial; charges were not dropped because too many witnesses had died over the years or because the evidence had become degraded. “There’s not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case,” he said. “There is nothing.”

Former Harris County assistant district attorney Kelly Siegler, who has sent nineteen men to death row in her career, went even further in her statements. Siegler laid the blame for Graves’s wrongful conviction squarely at the feet of former Burleson County D.A. Charles Sebesta. “Charles Sebesta handled this case in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare,” Siegler said. Over the past month, she explained, she and her investigator, retired Texas Ranger Otto Hanak, reviewed what had happened at Graves’s trial. After talking to witnesses and studying documents, they were appalled by what they found. “It’s a prosecutor’s responsibility to never fabricate evidence or manipulate witnesses or take advantage of victims,” she said. “And unfortunately, what happened in this case is all of these things.” Graves’s trial, she said, was “a travesty.”

So yeah, this is a big deal. You need to read Colloff’s two feature stories to get the full measure of outrage at this horror. Sebesta avoided any repercussions for his abhorrent actions initially because Texas’ law at the time started the clock on the statute of limitations way too soon. Here’s Colloff again with the details.

At first glance, the bar’s lack of action against Sebesta is confounding. Why would the statute of limitations prohibit the agency from taking action against Sebesta, who prosecuted Graves in 1994, but not against Anderson, who prosecuted Morton seven years earlier, in 1987? The answer lies in one simple detail: the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the facts of the offense—such as withholding evidence favorable to the accused—are discovered (or, in legalese, “become discoverable”). In the recent proceedings against Anderson, the bar persuasively argued that the statute of limitations did not begin running until 2011, when the transcript describing Morton’s son’s account of the killer was found in Anderson’s files. Such a strategy was not possible with Sebesta, Acevedo told me, because “the information at issue”—i.e., that he withheld favorable evidence—“was known more than four years before the grievance was filed.”

Bennett, who filed the grievance, takes issue with that, arguing that the Fifth Circuit’s ruling “was the official notice of what had taken place.” And Graves’s attorney, Cásarez, believes that’s key. While it’s true that Graves’s lawyers learned in 1998 that Carter had repeatedly told Sebesta of Graves’s innocence, when they took a deposition from Carter at that time, it was simply a defendant’s word against that of a sitting district attorney. It was not until 2006 that the Fifth Circuit made an official finding that Sebesta had withheld evidence. “Now, how can someone file a grievance and expect to get anywhere until a court finds that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct?” Cásarez wondered.

Thankfully, SB825 took care of that loophole last year. Now maybe Charles Sebesta will finally be held to account for his actions. The Trib and Colloff again have more.

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