The criminal justice world was shook up last month by the news that former Williamson County district attorney Ken Anderson, the prosecutor in the Michael Morton case, had to forfeit his law license, plead guilty to criminal contempt of court charges, and serve jail time. The fact that Anderson would be punished—no matter how “insultingly short” the ten-day sentence might be—was historic, marking the “first time ever” that someone would be punished for committing one of the worst sins a prosecutor can commit: withholding critical evidence that could help the accused’s case. In doing so, Anderson won a conviction against a man who turned out to be innocent.
The facts of the Morton case are by now well known, but to quickly recap: During Morton’s 1987 murder trial, Anderson failed to turn over a police transcript that described an eyewitness account given by Morton’s young son, who said that a stranger, not his father, had killed his mother, Christine. The jury never learned of the transcript and found Morton guilty. Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2011.
Anderson has now become the face of prosecutorial misconduct, but another prosecutor went much further than Anderson to secure a conviction: Burleson County DA Charles Sebesta, the man who sent Anthony Graves to death row. During Graves’s trial in 1994, Sebesta never disclosed that the only eyewitness to the brutal 1992 murder of the Davis family in Somerville—a man named Robert Carter—repeatedly insisted that Graves never took part in the crime. (Carter was himself convicted of the killings, but investigators felt certain he’d had an accomplice. He named Graves after more than twelve hours in police custody.) And according to a withering 2006 ruling from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Sebesta not only withheld favorable evidence in the Graves case, he also suborned perjured testimony—or obtained false statements—from two witnesses on the stand. The Fifth Circuit, one of the most conservative in the nation, stated that Sebesta’s “deliberate” effort to mislead the jury with information that he “knew was false” was “perhaps even more egregious” than his failure to turn over evidence that was favorable to the defense.
And that was not all. As my 2010 story on the Graves case explained in greater detail, Sebesta also scared off Graves’s alibi witness during the trial by suggesting that she, too, might be charged in the Davis murders. Terrified, she refused to testify. (She was never charged.) He also pressured Carter into testifying against Graves after he refused. “Sebesta told Carter that if he didn’t testify against Anthony, he would prosecute Carter’s wife instead,” said Graves’s attorney, Nicole Cásarez. (Carter’s wife, Cookie, was arrested and charged with capital murder but never tried.) “He twisted Carter’s arm to ensure that he got a conviction,” Cásarez said. Which he did. Graves was found guilty and spent eighteen years behind bars, twelve of them on death row, before he was released in 2010 and exonerated by an act from the Texas Legislature.
And yet the State Bar of Texas, which is supposed to discipline attorneys who commit ethical violations, did not take any action against Sebesta—even after the Fifth Circuit ordered that Graves be given a new trial, citing the fact that the district attorney had withheld favorable evidence and used false testimony to win.
Houston attorney Robert Bennett filed a grievance with the bar after the Fifth Circuit handed down its ruling in 2006, alleging that Sebesta had committed a host of ethical violations. But the bar summarily dismissed the complaint without even a hearing, stating in a letter to Bennett that “there is no just cause to believe that [Sebesta] committed professional misconduct.”
Bennett, who is usually on the other side of such cases—he specializes in defending attorneys in disciplinary proceedings—was taken aback. “The bar gave him a free pass,” Bennett told me. “At the very least, they should have investigated further, given the importance of the case.”
Then again, the bar’s track record for disciplining prosecutors is abysmal. “In ninety-one criminal cases in Texas since 2004, the courts decided that prosecutors committed misconduct, ranging from hiding evidence to making improper arguments to the jury,” noted Brandi Grissom of the Texas Tribune last year. “None of those prosecutors has ever been disciplined.”
Sebesta has always maintained that the bar dismissed the grievance against him for one simple reason: the agency determined that he had done nothing wrong. “For the Record,” his website states, “there was never any ‘Prosecutorial Misconduct’ on my part—not then and not now, and anyone wishing to verify that, can check with the State Bar of Texas.”
So I recently decided to do just that. I began by contacting Linda Acevedo, the bar’s chief disciplinary counsel, to see if she could comment on why the grievance had been dismissed. She emailed me that she could disclose little, due to confidentiality issues, but explained why the grievance went nowhere. “This dismissal was based on the fact that the complaint was brought forth well beyond the four-year statute of limitations our office is bound by,” she wrote.
In other words, the bar never cleared Sebesta of wrongdoing, as he has suggested for years. It never made any determination as to whether or not he had violated the rules of professional conduct. It simply took no action because the statute of limitations on those violations—including withholding favorable evidence and eliciting perjured testimony—had run out.
As for the letter that the bar had sent Bennett stating that there was “no just cause” to believe Sebesta committed professional misconduct, Acevedo cautioned not to take that wording too literally. The letter Bennett received did not exonerate Sebesta; it was only “the standard dismissal letter used by our office,” she wrote, and “did not specify the basis for the dismissal.”
Given that the bar never absolved Sebesta, I asked Acevedo if Sebesta could face sanctions for claiming that the agency had cleared his name. (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:
- “The State Bar cleared Sebesta of any wrongdoing in the case.”
- “Had I withheld evidence in the Graves Trial, ‘sanctions’ would and should have been appropriate. But that did not happen and the State Bar of Texas obviously agreed with their dismissal of the grievance!”
- “The [bar’s] Grievance Committee said the allegations ‘Lacked Just Cause’ to proceed, which in layman’s terms means that there was no evidence to justify a formal hearing.”
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.”