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Exonerated death row inmate takes on his former prosecutor in Texas

HOUSTON — Anthony Graves survived 18 years in prison for murders he did not commit, a dozen of those years on death row, where he was twice scheduled for execution.

On Wednesday, Graves stood defiant outside a courthouse in a blue pinstripe suit with several state lawmakers and announced that the State Bar of Texas would be investigating his complaint against the prosecutor who convicted him, Charles Sebesta.

“Give us justice,” said Graves, 48, of Houston.

The announcement was the latest salvo in a legal battle that the two men have been fighting for two decades.

Sebesta, 73, the former district attorney in rural Burleson County, about 100 miles northwest of Houston, has defended his record and insists that despite Graves’ exoneration, he is guilty.

“They’re bringing in politicians, members of the Legislature, in an attempt to intimidate the state bar,” Sebesta said Wednesday. “This matter’s over.”

Some legal experts do not agree with that assessment, including members of the state prosecutors' association.

Two years ago, the Texas District and County Attorneys Assn. issued a report that found errors in the Graves case that raised “serious questions about prosecutor misconduct,” including “tunnel vision on the part of the prosecutor” who focused on Graves early on and “stuck to that initial conclusion in the face of many contradictory circumstances.”

The state bar will now decide whether Sebesta committed misconduct.

Graves was convicted in 1994 of killing a 45-year-old woman, her 16-year-old daughter and four grandchildren in a single stoplight town about 90 miles northwest of Houston in 1992. The victims were variously beaten, stabbed, strangled and shot.

The sole witness to the crime, Robert Carter, was also charged and initially implicated Graves, but later recanted.

Sebesta said he did not withhold a statement from Carter, and that it was the job of Graves’ attorney to question Carter more closely.

Both Carter and Graves were convicted. Carter was executed in 2000. Sebesta retired the same year.

Graves appealed. In 2006, his conviction was set aside by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found the prosecutor not only withheld evidence that would have helped Graves, but that he also encouraged witnesses to commit perjury. Four years later, the new district attorney dismissed the charges and declared Graves innocent.

Graves and Sebesta have been trading barbs ever since. They launched dueling websites. When Graves appeared on “48 Hours,” Sebesta posted a rebuttal on his home page. Graves criticized the former prosecutor in news stories. Sebesta took out full-page advertisements in newspapers, pointed to Graves’ prior drug conviction and derided his heroic portrayal in the media as “St. Anthony.”

Graves’ attorney filed a grievance with the state bar against Sebesta in 2007, but it was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired, he said (Sebesta disputes this). This year, Texas lawmakers extended the deadline for filing.

“I’m hoping the state bar will show some leadership on this,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat who championed the new law.

“God knows how many other people were wrongfully convicted by Charles Sebesta,” he said.

Sebesta said he had “only a handful” of grievances filed during his 25 years as a prosecutor. “We ran a pretty tight office,” he said.

Nationwide, 1,325 prisoners have been exonerated since the advent of DNA testing in 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Of those, 105 were exonerated from death row.

Texas, the country’s most active death penalty state, lead the nation in exonerations last year, according to the registry. The state has exonerated 135 prisoners since 1989, including 10 with death sentences.

Graves is not the first Texas exoneree to try to bring the prosecutor who handled his case to justice.

The State Bar of Texas has been considering half a dozen complaints filed against prosecutors, according to lawyers familiar with the cases.

Michael Morton, 59, filed a grievance after he was freed three years ago. Morton served 25 years in the 1986 murder of his wife at their Austin-area home, and was exonerated by DNA that led to the conviction of another man for the crime.

In addition to the grievance, Morton pursued a “court of inquiry,” a unique Texas proceeding that allows a judge to determine whether prosecutors broke the law and, if so, to charge them. The judge determined last year that the former district attorney (who had gone on to become a state judge) had intentionally withheld evidence, resulting in Morton’s wrongful conviction.

To settle the findings, and the grievance, the former prosecutor agreed to serve nine days in jail, resign from the bench and surrender his law license.

Graves is hoping to begin a court of inquiry into Sebesta.

“I want him to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. What he did to me was attempted murder. He tried to kill me with the needle, and he tried to use our justice system to do it,” Graves said.

Some questioned the political implications of convening a court of inquiry for Morton, who is white, but not for Graves, who is African American. About half the state’s exonerees are black, in line with national figures (about 35% of Texas exonerees are white, compared with 40% nationwide).

“The white exoneree got a lot of due process — deservedly — but the African American exoneree who faced execution twice has not received a searching inquiry,” said Kathryn Kase, one of Graves’ attorneys and executive director of Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit group that assists lawyers representing condemned inmates. “It looks bad.”

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