It’s been nine long years since the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Charles Sebesta, the Burleson County DA who prosecuted Anthony Graves for capital murder, had withheld favorable evidence and used false testimony to secure a conviction—a conviction that sent Graves to death row. Graves spent eighteen years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement.
Today, finally, a small measure of justice was served when the State Bar of Texas stripped Sebesta of his law license and formally disbarred him.
It was a stunning reversal of fortune for a man who was, for decades, the most powerful elected official in Burleson and Washington counties. Even after Graves walked free in 2010 and was formally exonerated in 2011, Sebesta continued to impugn his character—telling Texas newspapers as recently as last January that Graves was guilty of murder. Until the bar’s ruling, he did so with impunity.
Then, last summer—twenty years after Graves’ wrongful conviction—the bar’s chief disciplinary counsel determined that there was “just cause” to believe that the former prosecutor had engaged in misconduct. This finding followed a lengthy investigation, which the bar conducted after Graves brought a grievance against Sebesta last January. (Graves was only able to do so because lawmakers passed a bill 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.)
The legal proceeding that followed was conducted this May behind closed doors, as per Sebesta’s request. (Attorneys who are accused of misconduct may elect to have a district court proceeding, which is open to the public, or a private evidentiary panel hearing.) The trial spanned four days, and included testimony from Kelly Siegler, the special prosecutor who pronounced Graves an innocent man after re-investigating the case in 2010. Sebesta retained the formidable trial attorney Steve McConnico to defend him. But McConnico was up against the bar’s Laura Popps and Beth Stevens, who had prosecuted the professional misconduct matter of former Williamson County DA Ken Anderson, resulting in his disbarment and jail time in 2013 for his conduct in the Michael Morton case.
In a sweeping ruling released this morning, the bar found that Sebesta had violated no fewer than five tenets of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, including:
- 3.03(a)(l ): “A lawyer shall not knowingly make a false statement of material fact or law to a tribunal.”
- 3.03(a)(5): “A lawyer shall not knowingly offer or use evidence that the lawyer knows to be false.”
- 3.09(d): “A prosecutor in a criminal case shall make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense…”
- 8.04(a)(l): “A lawyer shall not violate these rules, knowingly assist or induce another to do so, or do so through the acts of another…”
- 8.04(a)(3): “A lawyer shall not engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.
When I reached Graves in Houston this morning, he expressed his gratitude to the bar for ensuring that Sebesta had finally faced consequences for his actions. “I never thought that a young, African-American man from the projects could file a grievance against a powerful, white DA in Texas and win,” he said.
But he cautioned that a victory in his case alone was not enough. “I think this is a great first step,” he said. “But a lot of people in Washington and Burleson counties were prosecuted and convicted by Charles Sebesta, and some of them are still behind bars. All of those cases need to be examined, too.”
Was disbarment a sufficient punishment for the man who had sent him to death row, I asked? “I think he should be brought before a court of law to answer to charges of attempted murder,” Graves said.
(Photo: Anthony Graves when he filed the grievance against Charles Sebesta in 2014. Credit: AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Marie D. De Jesus)