Updated, March 5, 2014, 3 p.m.:
The State Bar of Texas has opened an investigation into Charles Sebesta, the former Burleson County District Attorney who prosecuted death row exoneree Anthony Graves.
The organization that oversees lawyers is investigating alleged professional misconduct by Sebesta, which, if proven, could result in his disbarment. The investigation was prompted by a complaint that Graves filed in January. Sebesta will have 30 days to file a response to the complaint.
"It sets a precedent for other state prosecutors that they have to act ethically," said Ramota Otulana, a clerk at the law firm that represents Graves.
Graves spent 18 years behind bars — 12 of them on death row, where he twice neared execution — before the U.S. 5th Circuit of Appeals overturned his conviction in 2006, ruling that Sebesta had used false testimony and withheld favorable evidence in the case.
Sebesta, 73, could not immediately be reached for comment. But on his website, he defends his actions and points to the State Bar's dismissal of a previous grievance over the case. According to his website, Sebesta was named Prosecutor of the Year in 1999 by the State Bar.
State Bar officials have said the previous complaint was dismissed because the statute of limitations on the alleged violations had expired. In 2013, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 825, which changed the statute of limitations, allowing a wrongfully imprisoned person to file a grievance up to four years after their release from prison in cases of alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Previously, the four-year statute began on the date the misconduct was discovered.
“I’m asking prosecutors to cooperate with the highest of integrity,” Graves told reporters in January. "It took me 18 and a half years to get back home. Two execution dates. All because a man abused his position."
HOUSTON — Former death row inmate Anthony Graves, who who spent 18 years behind bars before being exonerated, announced Monday that he is taking action against the man who prosecuted him, alleging prosecutorial misconduct.
“We’re here today, Martin Luther King Day, seeking justice for me and my family and the citizens of this state,” Graves told a crowd at Texas Southern University while announcing that he would file a grievance against former Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta.
Graves spent 12 of his 18 years in prison on death row — where he twice neared execution. Graves had been convicted of killing a Somerville family of six, even though another man, Robert Carter, confessed that he was the sole killer. Both men were sentenced to death. Then, in 2006, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Graves' conviction, ruling that Sebesta had used false testimony and withheld Carter's confession from the defense.
“I’m asking prosecutors to cooperate with the highest of integrity,” Graves said. "It took me 18 and a half years to get back home. Two execution dates. All because a man abused his position."
Robert Bennett, Graves’ attorney, said Graves could elect to pursue criminal charges against Sebesta in addition to filing a grievance with the State Bar of Texas. Sebesta could not immediately be reached for comment, but he has denied that he withheld evidence in the case. On his website, Sebesta defends his actions and points to the State Bar's dismissal of a previous grievance over the case.
State Sens. John Whitmire and Rodney Ellis and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, all Houston Democrats, joined Graves at Monday's news conference. Supporting Graves' pursuit of a grievance, they called on the State Bar to provide justice for Graves.
“It doesn’t hurt to have some transparency,” Thompson said. “No one is above the law.”
In 2013, Whitmire authored Senate Bill 825, which changed the statute of limitations for a wrongfully imprisoned person to file a grievance in cases of alleged prosecutorial misconduct. The new law allows Graves to take action against Sebesta up to four years after the date of Graves’ release from prison. Previously, the four-year statute began on the date the misconduct was discovered.
Whitmire said that while district attorneys will always be needed, “the message today is, we’re watching them.”
Graves was released Oct. 27, 2010, which meant that under SB 825 he is eligible to file a grievance through Oct. 27 of this year. At the conclusion of Monday's news conference, using an aide’s iPad, he submitted his grievance electronically.
“It’s a great day to be alive,” he said.