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by Edmond Geary

Ex-prosecutor disbarred for withholding death evidence

Charles Sebesta, a former prosecutor in Texas, has been disbarred for withholding evidence in a murder prosecution  years ago.  Sebasta convicted Anthony Graves for the 1992 killing of six people and was sent to death row.  He spent over 12 years on death row until a federal appeals court reversed the conviction in 2006. Graves was released four years later.  Besides his 12 years on death row, Graves spent two years awaiting his first trial, then another four in jail awaiting a second trial.   A special prosecutor determined that he should be freed and declared innocent of the crime.

The State Bar of Texas appointed a three member panel to investigate Sebesta’s compliance with ethical rules.  After hearing the evidence, the panel ordered Sebesta disbarred, finding he committed professional misconduct in his prosecution of Graves.   Robert Earl Carter also received a death sentence for these killings and had testified that Graves was his accomplice. But Carter subsequently recanted that testimony, including a recantation in the moments just before he was executed 15 years ago.  When the federal appeals court reversed Graves’ conviction, it found Sebesta had withheld the fact that Carter told a grand jury that he committed the murders alone, and then allowed Carter and another witness to give false testimony.

Graves and Carter were tried separately for the murders of Bobbie Davis, 45; Nicole Davis, 16; Denitra Davis, 9; Brittany Davis, 6; Lea ‘Erin Davis, 5; and Carter’s 4-year-old son, Jason Davis. There was evidence that Carter was upset that one of Davis’ daughters had named him in a paternity suit. The six victims had been stabbed or shot, or both, and were discovered by firefighters responding to a fire at a home 80 miles northwest of Houston.  Evidence indicated the killer tried to burn the bodies to hide the deaths.

In 2014, Graves filed a grievance with the Texas State Bar for Sebesta’s conduct. A year ago, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel found “just cause” to believe Sebesta had violated ethics rules, leading to a four-day disciplinary hearing last month. Sebesta invoked his right under State Bar rules to keep the proceedings private.

Sebesta had served for 25 years as district attorney in Burleson and Washington counties, located northwest of Houston. He left office in 2000.

Stripping a prosecutor or former prosecutor for improper prosecution is rare.  Courts give a wide berth to prosecutors, and some prosecutors use all the rein they are given.  It is only in the last few years that DNA could prove certain facts beyond doubt that the falsehood of prosecutor’s actions has enjoyed a spotlight.  Now, prosecutors who cannot resist political pressures or ambition have been caught red-handed lying and cheating, even to put someone on death row. Oklahoma has witnessed some of these. In the last few months, one former prosecutor was punished for falsifying witness testimony.  Another former prosecutor was suspended for a period after he was punished in Arizona for unethical conduct.  Of course, the series of false evidence from chemist Joyce Gilchrist and the trumped-up jail informers in Ada, made famous by John Gresham, are the most egregious examples in recent times of false prosecutions in Oklahoma.

Texas has enjoyed the reputation as the most active jurisdiction for death penalty prosecutions. Sebesta’s disbarment comes about 18 months after another former district attorney, Ken Anderson, served four days in jail and forfeited his law license for the wrongful murder prosecution of Michael Morton.  Morton served nearly 25 years of a life prison term for the 1986 slaying of his wife but was freed after a special court of inquiry determined Anderson intentionally concealed evidence favorable to Morton’s defense.