Why Was This Prosecutor Never Punished?

Anthony Graves was wrongfully convicted of capital murder in a trial where the prosecutor, Charles Sebesta, withheld evidence that could have helped prove Graves’s innocence. So why hasn’t Sebesta been held accountable for his egregious misconduct?
Wed December 18, 2013 6:30 am

(Attorneys must abide by the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, which forbids them to falsely represent themselves to potential clients.) I pointed out that Sebesta’s website includes many misleading statements, such as:

No, Acevedo told me, Sebesta would not face disciplinary action from the bar for making such claims. The rules of professional conduct, she wrote, are “aimed at regulating attorney advertising and … communications regarding an attorney’s legal services.” So even though he falsely represents the bar’s findings on his website, he will face no repercussions from the bar.

When I asked Kelly Siegler—the special prosecutor in the Graves case  who dismissed all charges against Graves in 2010 after a thorough examination of the evidence—what she made of all this, she said, “I think it’s disgusting that Charles Sebesta still has a law license.” She was equally appalled, she added, that Sebesta continues to instruct law enforcement officers around the state. (He teaches seminars through the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas.)

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.

Not punishing prosecutors like Sebesta, Graves told me, sends the wrong message. “We give prosecutors almost unrestricted authority in pursuing justice,” Graves said. “They should be held to a higher standard of accountability to make sure that they are not abusing their authority.” 

I was curious what he thought should have happened to Sebesta. What would have been the appropriate punishment? “He should have been charged with attempted murder and sentenced to eighteen and a half years in prison, like me,” Graves said. “He should have had his law license revoked and been made to pay restitution to my family and the Davis family.” 

Graves said he was dismayed to see nothing happen to the man who sent him to death row. “What happened to my brother Michael Morton was another horrible injustice,” he said. “However, when you compare the way the state of Texas handled these two cases, it shows that we still have a long way to go in this state for fairness for all in our criminal justice system.”

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