The legal profession is a noble and time-honored one, despite high-profile examples of a few “bad apples.” At their best, lawyers constitute the thin line between justice and tyranny. Even fictional Los Angeles D.A. Hamilton Burger – aggressive prosecutor that he was – would acknowledge to his nemesis, criminal defense attorney Perry Mason, that both sides were interested in justice above all.
This makes it all the more tragic when those who are supposed to be working for justice lose sight of that goal, whether it be because of ambition, pride, prejudice or all three.
Case in point: The People of Texas vs. Anthony Graves, in which D.A. Charles Sebesta stood for the prosecution – and was determined to win a conviction at any cost, even if it meant putting an innocent man on death row.
On August 17th, 1992, six members of the Davis family – four small children, a teenage girl and a 45-year-old grandmother – were brutally murdered in small town of Somerville, Texas. The house was then set on fire, presumably to cover up the crime. Eventually, a 27-year-old prison guard named Robert Carter, who had been married to a family member (Carter’s ex-wife, Lisa Davis, had been out that night), was arrested as a suspect.
The murders had been carried out by three different methods – shooting, stabbing and bludgeoning – suggesting that there had been multiple perpetrators. Under questioning for several hours, Carter eventually claimed that the murderer was Anthony Graves, cousin of Theresa “Cookie” Carter, the woman to whom he was married at the time. Despite evidence that Carter had been at the scene (he had suffered cuts and burn injuries), and despite inconsistencies in his testimony, Graves was eventually arrested.
Graves, who was also 27 at the time, had no prior criminal record except for a minor drug charge, for which he had received a suspended sentence. Beyond that, he was unemployed, low income with few prospects, and African American. There was no physical evidence to link him with the murders. Graves’ girlfriend, sister and brother all testified that they had been with him at his mother’s home the night of the mass killings.
Robert Carter, the original suspect, went on trial in February 1994, and was quickly convicted. Facing the death penalty, the State offered him life in prison if he would testify against Graves.
The Trial of Anthony Graves
Anthony Graves’ case finally came up in late October of 1994. When his family was unable to pay for the services of a top criminal defense lawyer, the court appointed a pair who had no experience in capital murder cases. Meanwhile, Carter continued to change his story. Finally, however, the day after Graves’ trial started, Carter confessed to the D.A.: “I did it all myself, Mr. Sebesta.”
Because three different weapons had been used, Sebesta refused to believe it. He suspected that Carter’s wife was involved as well as Graves – and that Carter was covering for her. In fact, in one version of his story, Carter had indeed implicated her. He had also failed a polygraph test, during which he was asked if Graves had participated in the killings. When the defense later asked the prosecution about the polygraph test and who else Carter might have implicated, Sebesta was dismissive, saying only that “there were some names…they’re not necessarily parties to the crime…[but] may possibly have some information.”
Sebesta was anxious to get a conviction. In the absence of physical evidence, however, that conviction rested on Carter’s testimony – and there was no guarantee that he would provide one. Sebesta finally made Carter a deal – testify against Graves and he wouldn’t ask anything about Mrs. Carter – nor use any evidence that might emerge against her in the future.
Robert Carter Testifies
Carter finally told the jury that Graves had been his accomplice – but even that wasn’t enough. There were no weapons and no fingerprints to link Graves to the crime, so Sebesta produced a switchblade knife owned by one of Graves’ former employers. Allegedly, Graves’ boss at the time, Roy Rueter, had given him a similar knife as a gift. A law enforcement officer who had worked on the case, claiming to be an “expert” on edged weapons, told the jury that the knife was a “perfect match” to the victims’ wounds. The county forensic surgeon confirmed that such a weapon was likely to have been used in the killings. However, Rueter himself said that the knife was of poor quality, and was unlikely to have inflicted so many stab wounds. Yet another forensics expert testified that any blade of the same dimensions could have been used. (To this day, the murder weapon has never been found.)
Then, there was the question of motive. According to Carter, Graves’ mother, Doris Curry, had been passed over for a promotion that was ultimately given to the oldest victim, Bobbie Davis. However, the manager at the institution where the two women worked testified that there were no hard feelings between them.
Sebesta then called three witnesses to the stand who were employed at the county jail where Carter and Graves were being held. Hopefully for the prosecution, they had heard some incriminating conversation – but this was not the case. Between a dysfunctional intercom monitoring system and all the noises in the building, it had been impossible to discern what had been said and who had been saying it. Robert Carter said later that Graves had attempted to talk with him: “I can understand that because of the fact that he was innocent and he wanted some answers to his questions.”
Finally, Sebesta played his last card. Graves’ girlfriend, Yolanda Mathis, whom he had been with that night, was the key witness for the defense. Just before Mathis was scheduled to testify, however, Sebesta told the judge and the defense that Mathis should understand that she herself was a “possible suspect,” and that her testimony might incriminate her.
When Graves’ inexperienced defense attorneys told Mathis, she panicked and ran. Later, before the court, Sebesta demanded to know where the “alibi witness” the defendant “claims to have been with” had gone – and why hadn’t she testified on his behalf?
The defense lawyers had no response.
There was still evidence in Graves’ favor: his sister and his brother. Both siblings affirmed that Graves had been with them all evening, as well as the brother’s girlfriend – who had spoken briefly with Graves on the telephone. Graves’ brother, Arthur Curry, later stated: “I know he’s innocent…he was at home where I was that night. I know for certain that he never left.”
Neither of Grave’s siblings was called to testify before the court.
When Sebesta finally got Carter on the witness stand, at no time did he inform the court that Carter had been reluctant to implicate Graves, or that Carter had in fact implicated his wife in an earlier statement. Such information might have provided “reasonable doubt” in the jury’s mind.
When the jury retired to deliberate, there was one juror who indeed had reasonable doubt. Many years later, that juror, James Hahn, said that he believed Graves to be innocent of the charges. He said that Sebesta had used Graves because someone “needed to take a fall” for the crimes.
Hahn realized he was the only one of the twelve who considered Graves was not guilty – and he would never be able to convince his fellow jurors otherwise.
After a trial lasting only ten days, Anthony Graves was convicted on six counts of first degree homicide and sentenced to death.
More than five years later, Robert Carter made a sworn statement before Sebesta and Roy Greenwood, the attorney handling Graves’ appeal. In his statement, given only days before his own execution, Carter said:
It was all me; but you said you didn’t want to hear it…Anthony Graves did not have any part in the murders and was not present before, during or after I committed the multiple murders at the Davis home.
Just before the executioner put the needle into Carter’s arm, he said: “It was me and me alone. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. I lied on him in court.”
In March of 2006, after nearly a dozen years on Death Row, Anthony Graves was finally granted a new trial by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate judges concluded that
Sebesta’s statement regarding the polygraph, his discovery responses and questioning of Carter…[was] misleading and a deliberate attempt to avoid disclosure of evidence of Cookie [Carter’s] direct involvement. At a minimum, Sebesta’s minimal disclosure was insufficient to put the defense on notice to inquire further . . .
In other words, Sebesta had deliberately misled the jury.
Stubborn To The End
Despite the ruling of the federal appellate court, the State of Texas was not willing to admit that Graves had been wrongly convicted. His retrial was postponed repeatedly, and in 2008, the District Attorney offered to commute Graves’ sentence to life in prison on the condition that he would confess to the killings. Graves would not.
Despite the overturning of his conviction and evidence of prosecutorial misconduct – as well as his own innocence – Anthony Graves’ ordeal went on for four-and-a-half more years. He was finally released on October 27, 2010 – after serving sixteen years on death row for a crime he did not commit.
Now, after almost five years, prosecutor Charles Sebesta is finally being held to account for his own deliberate actions in convicting an innocent man. After a 25-year career as a district attorney for two counties, CBS News reports that Sebesta has been found to have “withheld evidence and used false testimony to win a capital murder conviction” by the Texas State Bar. His law career is over; his license to practice has been taken away, and his Bar profile now says he has “retired.”
Despite his disbarment, Sebesta remains unrepentant. Posting on his personal website, Charles Sebesta: Setting the Record Straight, he continues to insist that Graves is guilty. He also depicts himself as the victim. About the episode of CBS’ award-winning 48 Hours entitled “Grave Injustice,” he says: “It’s all a part of an all-out ‘media-blitz,’ to convince the public that Graves has been ‘railroaded’ and I’m the ‘villain.’”
People like Anthony Graves and the dedicated jurists who seek truth and justice for those like him, regardless of their own personal feelings, respectfully disagree.