Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Prosecutorial misconduct - Texas style

When last I opined on the subject of prosecutorial misconduct, it was in the context of a fictional event from a television show. This is most assuredly NOT a made-for-TV miscarriage of justice. This is the real thing, and it cost a man 18 years and came this close to costing him his life.
For eighteen years Anthony Graves insisted that he had nothing to do with the gruesome murder of a family in Somerville. That’s exactly how long it took for justice to finally be served.
This is a tale of four prosecutors: one worthy of the harshest penalties society can mete against the wicked, one who showed himself to be a complete slimeball, one who showed himself to be a front-running publicity whore, and one who deserves to be praised from the rooftops.

Prosecutor Charles Sebesta is the worst kind of human scum. Let me count the ways.
  • Sebesta suborned perjury. Co-defendant Robert Carter was told that unless he testified, his wife would face criminal charges for capital murder as well.

  • Sebesta hid exculpatory evidence. Carter recanted his claim that Graves committed the crime with him before a grand jury well prior to Graves' trial AND the morning before he testified in the trail. Graves' defense was never made aware of this fact.

  • Sebesta used the power of his position to intimidate an alibi witness. Sebesta said in live court regarding that witness, "Judge, when they call Yolanda Mathis, we would ask, outside the presence of the jury, that the court warn her of her rights. She is a suspect in these murders, and it is quite possible, at some point in the future, she might be indicted.” No such allegation had been levied prior to this statement nor subsequent to the trial. This was bald-faced and cynical intimidation. Nothing more, nothing less. Needless to say, the witness fled the courtroom and never returned, nor did she testify.

  • Sebesta fabricated evidence. Graves' close friend Roy Reuter was asked if Graves owned a knife. Reuter, foolishly, said yes, that he had given Graves a knife just like one he himself owned. He - again foolishly - allowed the police to take possession of the knife. No surprise, the police "expert" found that the knife "fit the holes" in one of the victim's skull. Never mind that the knife in question was so flimsy it would have shattered upon contact with something as hard as a human skull, or that any one of a thousand knives would "fit" in a MF'ing hole. This, to Sebesta, was "evidence".

  • Sebesta employed the old tried-and-true "jailhouse snitch" technique, getting two skels to claim they heard Carter and Graves speaking in their cell and admitting their guilt. I can't believe that juries still fall for this. But they do, and cynical prosecutors know it. For the record, both snitches recanted later.
The Texas Rangers weren't exactly circumspect in their conduct in this case, either. But this isn't about them. This is about a public official that is expected to act in the public's interest and administer justice fairly.

Due to the work of a journalism class project and amazing investigative reporting by Pamela Colloff of Texas Monthly magazine (see here for the best pre-release details), Graves was freed from Death Row after 14 years in prison. The Federal appeals court issued a scathing rebuke of Prosecutor Sebesta.
In a unanimous opinion, the panel held that the state’s case had hinged on Carter’s perjured testimony. Had Graves’s attorneys known of Carter’s statements to the district attorney, wrote circuit judge W. Eugene Davis, “the defense’s approach could have been much different . . . and probably highly effective.” The court reserved particular criticism for Sebesta for having prompted two witnesses to say on the stand that Carter had never wavered, other than in his grand jury testimony, in identifying Graves as the killer. (Sebesta had done this not only with Carter but with Ranger Coffman as well.) Wrote Davis, “Perhaps even more egregious than District Attorney Sebesta’s failure to disclose Carter’s most recent statement is his deliberate trial tactic of eliciting testimony from Carter and the chief investigating officer, Ranger Coffman, that the D.A. knew was false.”
One would think that the Fifth Circuit's stinging rebuke of Sebesta coupled with their decision to free Graves would be the end of the issue. One would think. But remember, this is Texas we're talking about, and Texans are nothing if not persistent when it comes to being assholes.

The criminal justice system (heavy emphasis on the "criminal" part) decided to take one more bite of the Anthony Graves apple. The successor to Charles Sebesta decided to retry Graves. Never mind that the Fifth Circuit had stated as a point of fact that Carter's testimony was perjured. This is Texas, gawd-durn it, and when we say someone is guilty, they're guilty! In 2007, a special prosecutor, Patrick Batchelor, who, like Sebesta, had a penchant for convicting the innocent, was appointed to handle the retrial. One of his first actions was to try to pass the original case's transcript through a jury to get a rubber-stamp conviction. This action was rightfully disallowed by a judge.

For four more years Graves remained imprisoned, this time in County Jail instead of Death Row, awaiting his retrial. Seriously, four years? WTF?!?!?

In 2010, a new special prosecutor was appointed when Batchelor had to withdraw due to "health issues".  Unfortunately, those "health issues" weren't fatal.

The new special prosecutor was Kelly Siegler. Kelly Siegler is a superstar among prosecutors. She is 19-and-0 in death penalty cases. But she is also a courageous and ethical individual; after a complete review of the "evidence" against Graves, she moved to dismiss all charges. She herself said that Graves is "an innocent man". Courageous and unusual behavior for a prosecutor.

Not unusual was the behavior of District Attorney Bill Parham.
At a press conference at the D.A.’s office in Brenham—just across the street from the courthouse where Graves’s retrial was to have taken place early next year—Parham told reporters that he was “absolutely convinced” of Graves’s innocence after his office conducted a thorough examination of his case.
His office?!?!?!? If not for the courageous actions of outsider Siegler, HIS EFFING OFFICE would have rammed through another death sentence for Graves. What a tool!

Siegler wasn't done, not by a long shot.
Former Harris County assistant district attorney Kelly Siegler, who has sent nineteen men to death row in her career, went even further in her statements. Siegler laid the blame for Graves’s wrongful conviction squarely at the feet of former Burleson County D.A. Charles Sebesta. “Charles Sebesta handled this case in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare,” Siegler said. Over the past month, she explained, she and her investigator, retired Texas Ranger Otto Hanak, reviewed what had happened at Graves’s trial. After talking to witnesses and studying documents, they were appalled by what they found. “It’s a prosecutor’s responsibility to never fabricate evidence or manipulate witnesses or take advantage of victims,” she said. “And unfortunately, what happened in this case is all of these things.” Graves’s trial, she said, was “a travesty.”
Yeah, about that. Surely criminal charges have been filed, right? After all, Sebesta is technically guilty of attempted murder!

Silly Vulture! This is TEXAS.
In 2007, Houston attorney Robert Bennett filed a bar complaint saying Sebesta and two assistant district attorneys acted unethically in the prosecution.

The State Bar dismissed the complaint, and officials said Sebesta has no disciplinary record.

But wait! Texas STILL isn't done effing with Anthony Graves!
Graves should have plenty of money -- about $1.5 million -- what Texas state law says 18 years of wrongful imprisonment is worth.

Graves told CBS News, "They stole 18 years of my life man for something I didn't even know anything about -- and they tried to murder me."

He'd at least have the money, Schlesinger said, if it weren't for a paperwork snafu. The prosecutor who dismissed the charges and set him free did not write that there was evidence of "actual innocence," and because he didn't use those two words, Graves doesn't get one penny.

"Two words, two words -- they're holding me hostage behind two words," Graves said. "They're holding my future hostage behind two words."
Texas. Effing Texas. Be glad you don't live there. Be very glad.