It’s been eight years since the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the DA who prosecuted Anthony Graves for capital murder had done something unconscionable: withheld favorable evidence and used false testimony to secure a conviction—a conviction that sent Graves to death row.
Since that federal ruling came down in 2006, granting Graves a retrial, many good things have happened: Anthony was freed from prison in 2010, after all charges against him were dropped; he was formally exonerated by the State of Texas; and he received $1.4 million in compensation for the eighteen years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit. But the man who secured his 1994 conviction—former Burleson County DA Charles Sebesta—never faced any consequences. The state bar took no action against him. Even when he continued to impugn Graves’ character, telling Texas newspapers as recently as this January that Graves was guilty of murder, he did so with impunity.
Finally, last week—twenty years after Graves’ wrongful conviction—the bar took a small but significant step toward ensuring that Sebesta would have to answer for his actions. The bar’s chief disciplinary counsel determined that there was “just cause” to believe that the former prosecutor had engaged in misconduct in Graves’ case. This finding followed a lengthy investigation, which the bar conducted after Graves brought a grievance against Sebesta this January. (Graves was only able to do so because lawmakers recently passed Senate Bill 825, which changed the existing statute of limitations, allowing exonereees to file such grievances with the bar up to four years after their release from prison.)
A legal proceeding will now follow, in which the bar will decide whether or not to dismiss the grievance, or sanction Sebesta. If the bar decides to sanction him, he could receive a punishment as light as a reprimand—essentially a slap on the wrist—or as severe as disbarment.
Though Sebesta has always put great stock in trying people before the court of public opinion—to this day, he continues to insinuate on his website that Graves is a murderer—he has asked that the bar hear his case in a confidential proceeding, rather than in open court. (The bar allows attorneys who are the subject of such grievances to choose whether they will have their cases heard in a district court before a judge or jury, or privately, before a panel of lawyers who serve on the bar’s grievance committee.) “His conduct against Anthony Graves was in a public proceeding and he continues to make public attacks on Mr. Graves,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a non-profit organization that represents Graves, along with attorneys in the Houston law firm Susman Godfrey. “He should defend his conduct in a public proceeding, for all to see.”
There’s no word yet on when the bar will make its determination about Sebesta. Whether or not the bar will take action at all still remains to be seen. Except for the recent disbarrment of Ken Anderson, the ex-Williamson County D.A. who prosecuted Michael Morton, the bar’s track record for disciplining prosecutors has been abysmal. From 2004 to 2012, in 91 criminal cases in which the courts decided that Texas prosecutors had committed misconduct, not a single prosecutor was ever disciplined.
When I reached Graves in Houston, he said that he was heartened that the bar was moving forward with its inquiry, but he expressed outrage that he and the public at large would be shut out of the process. “I’m highly disappointed that there will be a clandestine proceeding when my family and I were so publicly humiliated,” he said. “We need transparency. We should have the right to know exactly what happened in order to hold the right people accountable. Sebesta wasn’t the only one who acted unethically in this case. The lead investigator, Ray Coffman, gave false testimony to assist in my wrongful conviction.” Uncovering the truth, Graves said, would require more than a secret hearing before the bar. “I would like to ask the State of Texas to grant me a court of inquiry,” he said.