Anthony Graves Exonerated: Blatant Prosecutorial Misconduct of D.A. Charles Sebesta Sent Innocent Man to Death Row for 18 Years

By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair

A recent Iowa State University study, conducted by sociology professor Matt DeLisi, found that the total cost to society for a single murder in the United States is $17.25 million. Professor DeLisi led a team of five Iowa State graduate students in a study of 654 convicted and incarcerated murderers. This enormous price tag is measured in terms of costs to the victims, the criminal justice system, loss of productivity to both the victim and offender, and estimated costs to society to prevent future violence.

DeLisi’s study, titled Murder by the Numbers: Monetary Costs Imposed By A Sample of Offenders, was published in the February 2010 edition of the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology. This latest study by Professor DeLisi, and his student colleagues, draws heavily from a 2003 study based on the 654 convicted and incarcerated murder offenders housed in eight states: Texas, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. Using these 654 offenders, DeLisi’ latest study concluded that each murder they committed cost $17,252,656 with the most violent offender individually racking “costs greater than $150 million.” The study added:

“That each murder costs more than $17.25 million does not convey the true costs imposed by homicide offenders in the current sample. Since the mean homicide conviction was more than one, the average murderer in these analyses actually imposed costs approaching $24 million. For the offender who murdered nine victims, the total murder-specified costs were $155,457,083!”

But what about the price tag associated with wrongfully convicting an innocent man for multiple murders. The banner headline of the Houston Chronicle(10-28-10) informed its readers that Anthony Graves, who had been incarcerated 18 years (most of which was spent on death row) for six murders committed in 1992 in Burleson County, was released from jail after District Attorney Bill Parham filed a motion to dismiss all charges against the condemned inmate. The Graves case has a tortured history: Graves’ youngest brother, Author Curry, told the police, and eventually the jury that convicted and condemned Graves to death, that Graves had been at home sleeping on the night of the massacre of Bobbie Davis, her 16-year-old daughter, and four grandchildren, ages 4 to 9.

No physical or forensic evidence linked Graves to the mass murder. The only evidence came from Robert Earl Carter, who was executed in 2000 for his role in the murders and who implicated Graves in them, and inculpatory jailhouse statements jailers reportedly overheard Graves make.

Students from the University of St. Thomas, working with the Innocence Project at the University of Houston, got interested in the case and gradually developed evidence supporting Graves’ longstanding claims of innocence. That new evidence included an affidavit by Carter recanting his sworn trial testimony and saying Graves had nothing to do with the six murders. On the death gurney Carter again vigorously maintained that Graves was innocent and not involved in the murders.

In 2006 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial in the Graves case. Former Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta, who originally prosecuted the Graves case, was furious at the new trial order. In fact, in 2009 Sebesta took out two full page ads in local newspapers re-stating his case against Graves. This prosecutorial attitude cost Burleson County taxpayers severely: it cost taxpayers nearly $100,000 in 2007 and another $172,000 in 2008 just to prepare for Graves’ retrial.

Faced with these mounting costs and the increasing likelihood that Graves was in fact innocent, DA Parham ordered an in-depth investigation in the case: an investigation led by former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Kelly Siegler who ultimately concluded Graves was innocent.

“After months of investigation and talking to every witness who’s ever been involved in this case, and people who’ve never been talked to before, after looking under every rock we could find,” Special Prosecutor Siegler told the Chronicle, “we found not one piece of credible evidence that links Anthony Graves to the commission of this capital murder. This is not a case where the evidence went south with time or witnesses passed away or we just couldn’t make the case anymore. He’s an innocent man.”

Based on the DeLisi equation, $24 million for each murder, the six murders in the Graves case cost approximately $144 million—and this figure does not include the costs spent between 2006 when a new trial was ordered and 2010 when the case was formally dismissed based on “actual innocence.” The cost to taxpayers will only increase as inevitable civil damages are awarded for the 18 years Graves was wrongfully incarcerated. In a recent blog, we pointed out how a jury in Louisiana awarded a former condemned inmate named John Thompson $24 million for the 18 years he also wrongfully spent on death row. A comparable award in the Graves case could push the total costs in his case to nearly $170,000 million—not to the mention the total costs associated with the real murderer’s case, Robert Earl Carter.

But there are costs associated with a wrongful conviction and a subsequent 18-year incarceration under the ugly specter of death which cannot be measured in monetary terms: the mental and psychological damages done to Graves himself, the suffering endured by his family, and the stigma of a criminal conviction, no matter how wrongful, that will forever haunt Graves’ life. Money cannot compensate for these harms. Anthony Graves will never be a whole person again—ever.

But there is a lesson in this terrible tragedy: our society is willing to expend a great deal of resources and money to hold murderers accountable for their actions, as evidenced by the DeLisi study, but we are not prepared to hold accountable those people responsible for wrongfully convicting innocent people at horrific cost to our society. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006 ruled that DA Sebesta had illegally withheld favorable evidence which led to Graves’ wrongful conviction. A comprehensive and thorough investigation by DA Parham has since fully and completely, without any factual or legal reservations, exonerated Graves. In fact, the day after Graves’ release Siegler called Sebesta’s conduct in the case the “worst case” prosecutorial misconduct she had ever seen.

But can anything be done to hold former DA Sebesta accountable for his unlawful conduct in the Graves case?  Siegler pointed out that the statute of limitations has run on any possible criminal charges against the former district attorney, and, as we have reported, the U.S. Supreme Courthas cloaked him with personal immunity from any civil consequences for his lawless conduct. Thus, in terms of personal liability from either criminal or civil charges, he will most likely walk away scott free, only having to explain why as late as last year he felt so bold as to publicly try to justify his conduct in the case with newspaper ads.

But what about disciplinary action from the State Bar of Texas? That’s not likely. Houston criminal defense attorney Robert Bennett in 2007 filed a complaint against Sebesta with the State Bar only to see it dismissed. And that’s unfortunate. Criminal defense attorneys who violate the interests of their clients are subject to disciplinary action, including disbarment, by the State Bar. Perhaps the State Bar will now investigate Sebesta’s conduct in the Graves case after DA Parham and Special Prosecutor Siegler publicly described his conduct as blatant “prosecutorial misconduct.”

We don’t know. We have no way to gauge the State  Bar’s view of this particular case, but based on the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, the exonerating Parham investigation, and the conclusions drawn by Parham and Siegler that Sebesta engaged in prosecutorial misconduct, we certainly feel there are more than adequate grounds for an ethical inquiry. Society and Graves should not be the only ones who bear the costs of justice gone awry in the case.

By: Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair