Graves Case Becomes Election Issue

Anthony Graves, who spent eighteen years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit, speaks out as the Washington County sheriff’s race heats up.
Wed April 11, 2012 7:16 pm
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If you had assumed that you had heard the last from Charles Sebesta about the Anthony Graves case, you were wrong.

Sebesta, as you may recall, was the longtime district attorney of Burleson and Washington counties who won a conviction, and a death sentence, against Graves in 1994 . All charges against Graves were dropped in October 2010, after special prosecutor Kelly Siegler, who had been hired to retry him, and then-D.A. Bill Parham declared that their re-investigation of the case cleared Graves . After eighteen years behind bars, twelve of them on death row, Graves walked out of jail a free man. He was subsequently awarded $1.4 million by the State of Texas for his wrongful imprisonment.

Siegler—who as a Harris County assistant D.A. has sent nineteen men to death row—made no bones about who was to blame for Graves’s wrongful conviction. “Charles Sebesta handled this case in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare,” she announced at a 2010 press conference. “It’s a prosecutor’s responsibility to never fabricate evidence or manipulate witnesses or take advantage of victims. And unfortunately, what happened in this case is all of those things.” Sitting beside her at the press conference was ex-Texas Ranger Otto Hanak, whose reinvestigation of the case had laid bare the errors that had led to Graves’s conviction. Graves’s trial, Siegler said, was “a travesty.”

Sebesta, who has staked his legacy on the Graves case, has nevertheless continued to assert that Graves is guilty. Yesterday, in the pages of the Brenham Banner-Press, Sebesta took aim at Hanak, who is running for Washington County sheriff. A longtime lawman, Hanak has an impressive résumé and a number of endorsements from high-level members of law enforcement. But in the Banner-Press, Sebesta attempted to cast him as a traitor for daring to question the original investigators in the Graves case—even though it was their flawed work that led to Graves’s wrongful conviction. 

Under the headline, “Which Team is the District Attorney’s Investigator, Otto Hanak on?” Sebesta states in the paid political ad that “an officer who uses a news conference for his own self-gratification and in the process destroys the credibility and reputation of other peace officers doesn’t belong in law enforcement. The latter is exactly what occurred after the Washington County District Attorney moved to dismiss the Capital Murder charges against Anthony Graves.”

Sebesta’s screed against Hanak is replete with spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and most importantly, tortured logic, as in this passage (which is reproduced here, uncorrected): 

If we played by Hanak’s ‘so -called’ rules, we’d have very few criminal trials, because prosecutors would be extremely ‘gun-shy’ if they had to personally vouch for the credibility of every witness they called. Any law enforcement officer “worth his salt” knows that It’s the jury’s responsibility to determine the jury’s responsibility to detremine the credibility of both the witnesses and all physical evidence introduced during the trial. That ‘s what a jury is for and Otto Hanak should know that!

It’s worth noting that Sebesta—who appears to be making the argument here that prosecutors do not need to answer for the credibility of their witnesses—was rebuked by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006 for his conduct in the Graves case. The federal court found that Sebesta had elicited perjured testimony from two witnesses, one a member of law enforcement, during Graves’s capital murder trial.

Graves, who is moving on with his life, is currently touring the country, speaking at law schools and universities about prosecutorial misconduct and the importance of criminal justice reform. When I asked him if he wanted to respond to Sebesta’s critique of Hanak, he replied with the following statement: 

We the voters give whoever we choose as county sheriff an awesome amount of both responsibility and power. We need to be sure that whoever that person is, he or she will seek justice and not abuse our trust. I was sentenced to death and spent eighteen years of my life in prison for a crime I did not commit. Otto Hanak had the courage to stand up for what was right in my case. He stands for justice, not cronyism or corruption or abuse of power. I support the side that Otto Hanak supports—the right side.

Read Sebesta's entire paid political ad below:

Which Team is the District Attorney's Investigator, Otto Hanak on?

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