In 1994, former Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta prosecuted former prison guard Robert Carter and Anthony Graves for the murder of a Somerville family of six who were killed in April 1992. The murder victims included a well-liked woman named Bobbi Davis, her daughter, and four grandchildren, all of whom had been stabbed a total of 66 times. One of the victims was the four-year-old son of Carter (Jason) who had been stabbed 12 times as he tried to protect himself with a pillow. A gun and a hammer were also used in the brutal murders.
Brutal Murders Demanded Fast Resolution
The Texas Rangers quickly identified Carter has a suspect in the murders. He was the estranged husband of Davis’s daughter, Lisa. He was read his Miranda rights and questioned by four Rangers, steadfastly maintaining his innocence until he failed a polygraph test. He then confessed. He told the Rangers that he drove Graves to his mother-in-law’s residence where he (Graves) committed the murders.
Graves’ was Lisa’s first cousin. That relationship connected him to the murdered family. Carter said he did not take part in the murders, even though he was present in the residence while the slaughter was taking place.
Graves Alibi Witnesses Ignored
Texas Monthly Magazine reported in January 2011 that Graves only knew Carter “in passing” and that Graves had three alibi witnesses who could place him at his mother’s apartment “at the time of the crime.” One of those witnesses was Graves’ girlfriend. The other two were his sister and brother. He was also placed at the residence by his brother’s girlfriend. While the brother/girlfriend were talking on the phone on the night of the murders, the girlfriend overheard an exchange between the brother and Graves in the background.
Only Evidence was Recanted Testimony of Snitch Facing Death Penalty
There was no physical evidence that linked Graves to the horrific murders. The only evidence against Graves was Carter’s story implicating him. Still, he was indicted by a grand jury for capital murder—the same grand jury that heard Carter tell them that the Rangers had pressured him into giving up an accomplice and that he gave them Graves’ name “off of the top of my head.”
This recantation notwithstanding, Carter worked out a tentative agreement with Sebesta to testify against Graves. Carter had already been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. The district attorney agreed to let him plead guilty to a life sentence should his death penalty conviction be reversed on appeal. Carter accepted the proposal.
Graves Not Involved, “I did It all My Self”
The day before Carter was to testify, Sebesta and his prosecution team visited the inmate in the county jail where, shortly after the meeting began, he told the district attorney: “I did it all myself, Mr. Sebesta. I did it all myself.”
The district attorney should have walked away from the Graves prosecution at that point. He did not. He pressured Carter for more details about the crime, focusing on the convicted killer’s wife, Cookie, who had also been indicted as an accomplice in the case.
Snitch Implicates Wife
Carter once again implicated Graves, telling the prosecution team that he stabbed all the victims after he (Carter) had shot one of them. He also implicated his wife by saying she wielded the hammer during the attack.
Carter then agreed once again to testify against Graves the following morning.
According to yet another in depth piece about the case in Texas Monthly, Carter got “cold feet” about testifying the morning of the Graves trial. But he again relented, agreeing to testify only after Sebesta told him that he would not ask Carter about his wife during his testimony.
While Sebesta informed the trial judge, outside the presence of the jury, about this agreement, the district attorney did not inform the court about the previous night’s conversation during which Carter personally told the DA that Graves had nothing to do with the killings.
Charles Sebesta Suborned Perjury
Carter testified against Graves. Sebesta directly asked him if Graves was the only person he (Carter) had implicated in the crime during the investigation process. Carter responded in the affirmative. Sebesta knew that statement was a lie. The district attorney had suborned perjury by letting that statement go uncorrected to the jury.
Graves’ Conviction Reversed
In 2006, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Graves’s conviction, ruling that Sebesta had indeed suborned perjury and had withheld other favorable evidence in the case.
Graves Exonerated After 18 Years in Prison
By this time, Graves’s case had attracted national and international attention about his claims of innocence. The new Burleson County district attorney tagged former Harris County prosecutor Kelly Siegler to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into Graves’s innocence claims. Her report to the district attorney concluded Graves was innocent.
Graves was released from custody in October 2010. He had been incarcerated for 18 years for a crime he did not commit and that he was convicted upon due to intentional prosecutorial misconduct. He was exonerated in 2011 and awarded $1.4 million in June of that year by the State of Texas for his wrongful imprisonment.
Charles Sebesta Unrepentant
Charles Sebesta remained unrepentant throughout this process. He was convinced that Graves had participated in the killings, so much so that he was blinded to reality and willing to cheat to get a conviction. That conviction was rooted in his professed belief that three people committed the murders: Carter, Cookie, and Graves. Sebesta simply could not come to terms with the mounting evidence that Graves’s was not involved in the crime, despite Carter’s repeated assertions that he was the lone killer, or he did not care.
The discredited district attorney never pursued a more rational theory staring him in the face; namely, that Cookie not only participated in the killings (as Carter stated in the pre-Graves trial conversation with the prosecution team) but that she was the motivating factor behind the horrible crime.
There was incredible hostility between Cookie and the Davis family. Carter had a child with Lisa. Just days before the murders, she had filed a paternity suit against Carter seeking to have him declared Jason’s paternal father and be required to pay child support.
That lawsuit came at a time when, according to the Texas Monthly, Cookie was pressuring Carter to choose between her or Lisa. This bitter rivalry between the two women, fueled by the sons they bore from the same man, could have, and probably did, reach a violent tipping point when Lisa filed the paternity lawsuit.
Official Misconduct Seeking Death Penalty
Rather than pursue Cookie as the primary instigator (or certainly as a contributing instigator) of the murders, Sebesta chose to suborn perjury and suppress any and all evidence that exonerated Anthony Graves of the murders. He chose to dedicate all his official power, resources, and credibility into one endeavor: to have Graves executed in the state’s death chamber at Huntsville.
And in the midst of this horribly corrupt endeavor, Sebesta dropped all charges against Cookie for “lack of evidence.”
The only “evidence” the DA had against Graves was Carter’s implication of him. Carter had also implicated Cookie in the murder during the meeting with the prosecution team. On that basis, there was as much evidence against Cookie as there was against Graves.
Anthony Graves was Innocent
Charles Sebesta probably got one thing right about this tragic case: one person did not kill six people with three different weapons in one household. Carter had an accomplice. We will never know for sure who that accomplice was.
What we do know for sure is that it was not Anthony Graves.
Charles Sebesta Disbarred
In January 2015, Graves filed an ethics complaint against Sebesta with the Texas State Bar. Following a brief six-month investigation, the Bar agreed that Sebesta had engaged in “prosecutorial misconduct” and ruled that he should be disbarred from the practice of law in this state.
Sebesta appealed the disbarment ruling to the Texas Board of Disciplinary Appeals.
On February 8, 2016, the board upheld the State Bar’s disbarment decision, concluding that the former district attorney’s misconduct was “egregious.”
In a telephone interview with the Huffington Post following the board decision, Sebesta said he was “concerned about the process” that had allowed State Bar attorneys to target him for disbarment.
Sebesta then told the Texas Lawyer he had not decided whether to appeal the board’s ruling to the Texas Supreme Court—a decision that would not likely change the outcome of the case.
“I’m retired. I’m 75 years old,” Sebesta told the legal magazine. “I will say this: I’m not worried about my situation. But it concerns me about our profession and the future of prosecutors doing their job and constantly looking over their shoulder at the politically correct crowd.”
He remains convinced of Graves’s guilt and has refused to apologize for his handling of the case.
Retirement and disbarment is a fitting end to a career of a once prominent and powerful district attorney who got lost in the woods along the way. If the universe was just, he would be in prison.