In a rare but highly commendable action by the Texas State Bar, the prosecutor in the Anthony Graves case, who knowingly presented false testimony from two key witnesses in Graves’ 1994 capital murder case has been disbarred. You can read the full judgment of disbarment here. It is a remarkable, and in the annals of prosecutorial accountability, a remarkably important final act in a notorious instance of official misconduct.
Graves spent eighteen years in prison, fourteen on death row, and was nearly executed twice for a crime of which the State of Texas later declared him “actually innocent.” His case was instrumental in the unanimous passage of the Michael Morton Act, which improved criminal discovery procedures in Texas (though with mixed results). For a full background on the case see Pamela Colloff’s exemplary article in Texas Monthly, our previous posts, and this “48 Hours” special.
Charles Sebesta was the District Attorney in Burleson and Washington counties from 1975-2000. In 1994, in a case involving the murder of six members of the Davis family, including four children, he prosecuted two men: Robert Carter, the father of one of the children; and Anthony Graves, whom Carter initially implicated, but later denied to the grand jury had anything to do with the crime.
Despite this on-the-record denial, Sebesta put Carter on the stand to testify against Graves, soliciting testimony he knew to be false, not only because of the grand jury proceedings but from a statement Carter made to Sebesta the night before he testified against Graves, stating Graves had no involvement in the murders. Sebesta never informed the defense of this statement.
After years of post-conviction proceedings, the Fifth Circuit eventually overturned Graves’ conviction in 2006, and when the special prosecutor assigned to the case could find insufficient evidence to retry him, he was released in 2010.
Last year, with the help of the Texas Defender Service, Graves’ filed a grievance against Sebesta with the Texas State Bar, and a disciplinary hearing took place last month.
In disbarring Sebesta this past Friday, an evidentiary panel of the bar found that he had violated his ethical duty by:
- eliciting false testimony from Robert Carter
- failing to disclose the exculpatory evidence of Carter’s statement the night before trial, clearing Graves’ of involvement in the crime
- eliciting false testimony from a Texas State Ranger regarding Carter’s statements about Graves’ involvement
- threatening an alibi defense witness with prosecution for the same murders, when he had no evidence to support her involvement, apparently causing her to decide not to testify on Graves’ behalf
- failing to disclose that a prosecution witness was under felony indictment by Sebesta’s office at the time of his testimony
Under the punishment of disbarment, Sebesta has thirty days to notify any current clients that he has been disbarred, return all monies held in client accounts, and notify all courts and tribunals before which he has pending cases that he is no longer permitted to practice law in the State of Texas. He must also surrender his license.
Graves’ lawyers at the Texas Defenders Service, led by Kathryn Kase, had this to say about the outcome:
We believe the violations found by the grievance panel fully warranted Mr. Sebesta’s disbarment. We believe no prosecutor found to have engaged in the conduct determined by the grievance panel—and indeed, by the Fifth Circuit—should be permitted to maintain a law license in the State of Texas. We respect the wisdom and courage of the grievance panel in reaching this decision, and we appreciate their time and service to a matter so important to the legal profession…
We applaud and highly commend the lawyers representing the State Bar of Texas, Laura Popps and Elizabeth Stevens, for their diligence, their mastery of the facts and law, their professionalism, and for the respect they showed at all times to Mr. Graves and his family. They represent the very highest aspirations of the legal profession.
Their one complaint was that the evidentiary panel’s proceedings were allowed to remain private as the request of Charles Sebesta under rules for such hearings.
“In urging the Bar to change that rule,” Kase said, “the Houston Chronicle editorialized in August 2014 that ‘A rule that permits a closed trial against a prosecutor charged with violating the public trust does not inspire faith in the system.’ We, too, urge the Bar to change its rule.”
It is vanishingly rare for a prosecutor to be disbarred for withholding evidence and eliciting false testimony. Not because of how rarely the behavior occurs, but because of how rarely the disciplinary mechanisms of state bars and state supreme court disciplinary committees fulfill their purpose, and hold the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system accountable for even the worst of their misconduct.
It is a very good day indeed, then, for the cause of prosecutorial accountability when a state bar does in fact act as far more should.