Updated: Charles Sebesta Disbarred For Attempted Murder By Prosecution
June 15, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — This past week brought a glimmer of good news to those who long for the much-needed accountability that may finally begin to beat back the constant abuse by government actors. Amidst the seemingly endless sea of Cops Gone Wild videos, there was a story about a prosecutor who had betrayed the public trust. Former District Attorney Charles Sebesta was disbarred by the Texas State Bar Association, an almost unheard of moment of punishment for a prosecutor.
But, there is just one small problem. Charles Sebesta, who was licensed to practice law in 1966, retired in 2000.
Sebesta is renowned for his prosecution of Anthony Graves, which garnered national attention back in 2010, when Graves was finally released and his murder case was dismissed. Bill Parnam, The Burleson County District Attorney who dismissed the case, minced no words:
“There’s not a single thing that says that Anthony Graves was involved in this case.”
The special prosecutor brought in to review Graves’ case stated during a press conference announcing the dismissal that Sebesta had handled the case “in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare.”
Charles Sebesta, the District Attorney in Burleson County, Texas, prior to Parnham, handed out his brand of justice for 25 years. In 1994, Robert Carter was tried and convicted for the murder of six people and sentenced to death. Later that same year, Carter’s co-defendant, Anthony Graves, was also tried and convicted for the same murders almost entirely upon the testimony of the already-convicted Carter.
Anthony Graves was sentenced to death. Robert Carter was executed in 2000. His final words were that he had acted alone and Anthony Graves had nothing to do with the murders.
Since Carter was the sole eyewitness in Graves’ case, his dying words would have been shocking had he not said the same thing directly to Charles Sebesta the day before he testified in Graves’ trial. Although he testified at trial that Graves had taken part in the murders (under significant pressure from Sebesta), at every other opportunity, he had professed Graves’ innocence. Graves would spend 18 years in prison before he was released and the case against him was dismissed. He was very nearly executed twice.
Sebesta violated the rule that seems to trip up so many other prosecutors – turn over evidence favorable to the accused.
For a defense of Sebesta’s conduct, visit charlessebesta.net, Mr. Sebesta’s very real and very public website devoted to “setting the record straight.” Sebesta does not particularly care for the way the media, current Burleson County DA’s, the press, appellate courts, or presumably anyone other than himself has handled the review of the Graves case. As for Carter’s statement that Graves was not involved, here is what Sebesta wrote on his website in 2011:
The night before Carter was ‘tentatively’ scheduled to testify in the Graves’ trial, he was picked up and brought to the Sheriff’s courthouse annex in Angleton by the Rangers. It would be my first opportunity to personally interview him. His attorney, Walter Prentice, was present during the interview.
[…] After asking him how he was doing and if his ‘dad’ or other family members had been to see him, Carter blurted out, “Mr. Sebesta, I did it all it all by myself.”
I looked him squarely in the eyes and said, “Robert, you know and I know that you didn’t do it all by yourself. There were three weapons: a knife, a gun and a hammer.”
He persisted for a few minutes and finally I explained to him, in terms that he could understand, that I was tired of playing games.
The first thing Carter told Sebesta during their first conversation was that Graves was innocent. Sebesta, though, did not believe him. Why? Because there were three weapons, and everyone knows it is impossible for one person to use more than one weapon. Three weapons meant three people.
There were still other reasons why the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Graves’ conviction, DA Bill Parnam dismissed the case, and the Texas State Bar Association to disbarred the retired DA. But none of those cut directly to the heart of Charles Sebesta’s twisted sense of justice, like his failure to disclose Robert Carter’s immensely exculpatory statements to the court or defense counsel.
Charles Sebesta sought the death penalty for Anthony Graves while hiding the fact that his only eyewitness had stated that Graves was innocent. To put it in other terms, he tried to cause the death of another human being by lying to people charged with determining whether or not that person’s life should be forfeited. To put it yet another way, Charles Sebesta attempted to murder Anthony Graves.
So this brings us back to the issue of punishment. Anthony Graves spent 18 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. Twelve of those years were spent on death row. Four of those years were after the Fifth Circuit had reversed his conviction on the basis of rampant prosecutorial misconduct.
What about Charles Sebesta, who tried to kill this innocent man by subverting every single tenet of prosecutorial ethics and conduct? Oh, he has to stay retired, at least in Texas.
But what about the hundreds of other people who endured Sebesta’s sense of fairness? The Texas State Bar Association has informed all of us that we should have little to no faith in the fairness of those proceedings as well.
The single disbarment of a retired DA is not insignificant. But it is close. The level of malfeasance committed by Charles Sebesta on this one case is staggering, but it is unlikely that Anthony Graves’ case was an anomaly. And that is just one DA. What about other DA’s who see justice through Sebesta-colored lenses?
If the Charles Sebesta, not to mention any other state bar whose prosecutors share Sebesta’s vision of “justice,” truly wants to rectify this problem, then it should use the Sebesta case as precedent and go on a statewide disbarment tour. Remember, punishment only works as a deterrent if meted out when it counts.
So before we hail Sebasta’s disbarment as representing a meaningful shift towards the proper administration of justice, we should recognize that this ruling will do nothing to deter future attempted murder by prosecution, if it goes no further. Let us reserve our cheers of triumph until we see a prosecutor switching places with the person he wrongfully convicted.
Update: The Texas State Bar Board of Disciplinary Appeals has upheld the disbarment of Charles Sebesta.
Sebesta appealed . . . and his lawyers told the State Bar of Texas Board of Disciplinary Appeals that he should not be disbarred based on technicalities in the rules that govern lawyer discipline. They argued that in 2007 the Bar had already ruled that there was no cause to disbar Sebesta and that the agency couldn’t change its mind in response to a new complaint Graves filed.
But a lawyer for the commission for lawyer discipline at the State Bar argued, among other things, that lawmakers in 2013 had changed the statute of limitations governing prosecutor discipline specifically to allow the kind of sanction Sebesta faced. Under the new law, those who have been wrongly convicted have up to four years after their release to seek discipline against prosecutors who engage in conduct such as withholding evidence and eliciting false testimony.
In their ruling on the Sebesta’s disbarment Monday, the disciplinary board called his conduct in the Graves case “egregious.”
The ruling of the Board of Disciplinary Appeals is final. Former Burleson County district attorney Sebesta is prohibited from practicing law in the State of Texas.