Friday, October 29, 2010

Legislature should limit immunity for sleazebag prosecutors like Charles Sebesta

From the Houston Chronicle:
A day after prosecutors dismissed the capital murder charges that sent Anthony Graves to death row in 1994, they accused the district attorney who convicted him of prosecutorial misconduct.

“Charles Sebesta handled this case in a way that could best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare,” Kelly Siegler declared. “It’s a travesty, what happened in Anthony Graves’ trial.” Graves, now 45, was released from jail Wednesday after spending 18 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, according to Bill Parham, the current DA for Washington and Burleson counties. Parham, Siegler and two investigators called a Thursday news conference at which they accused the former district attorney of hiding evidence and threatening witnesses.
Siegler said this example of prosecutorial misconduct was “The worst I’ve ever seen.” Sadly, there's no apparent remedy available here. Clearly the State Bar Association is completely worthless when it comes to holding prosecutors accountable. Again from the Chron:
In 2007, Houston attorney Robert Bennett filed a bar complaint saying Sebesta and two assistant district attorneys acted unethically in the prosecution.

The State Bar dismissed the complaint, and officials said Sebesta has no disciplinary record.
Thanks for nothing, State Bar. Way to uphold the integrity of the profession.

Mark Bennett says that "Sebesta will go to his grave carrying the burden of the private knowledge that he’s lying, cheating filth who destroyed an innocent man’s life." That's not nearly sufficient.

To me, this case and others like it require a legislative remedy. The doctrine of absolute prosecutorial immunity is a construct created out of whole cloth by the US Supreme Court, and that means this corrupt and corrupting concept could be vitiated by legislative action. Police officers, after all, only have "qualified immunity"; why should prosecutors get no accountability at all for decisions made when they have time to deliberate when police officers - who often must make decisions on the spur of the moment - receive less protection under existing court precedents? It doesn't make sense and this case shows it's a recipe for injustice.

I'd like to see the Texas Legislature pass legislation next spring - with a bill named after Anthony Graves - to make prosecutors subject to qualified immunity by statute. That would still limit their liability drastically - just as it's incredibly difficult to hold police officers accountable for on-the-job misconduct under "qualified immunity" standards - but at least in extreme cases like this one there'd be some recourse against prosecutors who think it's okay to cheat to win.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sebesta is one idiot prosecutor who should be held accountable for his misconduct. However, there are thousands of prosecutors working hard everyday to keep the public safe. There are tens of thousands of criminals who are guilty and don't like prosecutors who would like nothing better than to see the law changed so that they can harass well-meaning prosecutors for doing their jobs by filing meritless lawsuits and complaints. Why in the world would anyone want to be a prosecutor if he or she is constantly subjected to lawsuits and harassment? How does it serve the public good to hamstring prosecutors as they make difficult decisions about how to keep the public safe? You change the law as you suggest, and good prosecutors will leave prosecution. Then, you will be left with people serving as prosecutors who can't get jobs anywhere else and there will be countless more bad decisions made and innocent people caught up in the system. You are not thinking this through.

A good, hard-working prosecutor.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Believe me, 10:23, I've thought about this plenty over the years. You say Sebesta "should be held accountable," but you fail to say how. And the reason for that failure is that there is literally no recourse at all to do so.

How would it "hamstring" prosecutors to give them the same level of immunity as police, who don't seem particularly hamstrung by "qualified immunity," nor are they flocking away from the profession because in cases of extreme, intentional misconduct they can still (very rarely) be held liable. That's just a red herring, and with all due respect a self serving one at that.

Anonymous said...

Grits is right. Qualified immunity still provides a high level of protection and I seriously doubt that scaling back absolute immunity to qualified immunity would result in a mass exodus of good prosecutors.

This is not just a problem of an isolated idiot or two. Its an extremely hard problem to measure for several reasons but there is some data available from a recent USA TOday article and a study by the Center for Public Integrity. Plus there is significant antecdotal evidence to support the contention this is a widespread problem.

I would say to 10:23, if you don't want prosecutorial immunity scaled back, you need to be proposing other solutions. For example, the state bars could start investigating and punishing prosecutors. Just pretending its an isolated incident or two doesn't help. The consequences of this behavior are very, very serious. The idea behind scaling back immunity isn't just to compensate the victims but to deter the behavior.

If prosecutors don't want to lose their absolute immunity, they need to start policing their own.

Anonymous said...

“Charles Sebesta handled this case in a way that could best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare,”

Yes, Sebesta may be "one idiot prosecutor" but how many other officials and workers went along with him? Just as with the Texas Youth Commission where I work, for every bad actor you had 20-30 others who kept quite, went along with what was happening or helped cover it up ("passive corruption"). It's amazing how eager people are to support a corrupt system. About 60-70 percent of TYC employees were involved in this "passive corruption".

Maybe someone should take a look at those who worked with Charles Sebesta. BTW is there another term for this passive corruption?

Anonymous said...

Absolute immunity corrupts absolutely.

Anonymous said...

10:55 - Thanks. Good points and finally, someone actually tells it the way it is in TYC! It wasn't just a few involved, there were many TYC employees involved in the corruption/abuse of youth and the system itself.
Your comments and knowledge appear to support the many allegations in the book "Raped by The State".

R. Shackleford said...

I suspect 10:23 isn't in favor of qualified immunity because he/she/it knows it might well bite him/her/it in the ass.

Anonymous said...

11:35
Actually, sexual abuse was only a very small part of the TYC corruption. Most of it had to do with other things.

Anonymous said...

Texas needs a Hyde Amendment!!! One that extends to prosecutorial misconduct.

D.A. Confidential said...

As a prosecutor I, myself, would be fine with qualified immunity. I do know that a lot of defense lawyers have grievances filed on them for, well, almost nothing, so you can bet there would be an uptick in the number of lawsuits filed against prosecutors. If I could get assurance that I wouldn't be footing the bill for defending myself every time I got a conviction, I have no problem with accountability. I'm proud of what I do, and how I do it. (These comments are for myself only, of course.) If it's good enough for cops, it's good enough for lil old me.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good for you, DAC. :)

Hook Em Horns said...

As long as those operating within the system do so with immunity, the system will continue to be subject to liars, cheats and other malfeasance that brings the whole system into question. The behavior in this case and others is reprehensible yet those involved trudge right along as if nothing has happened.

To continue to not hold prosecutors and police who knowingly lie, withhold evidence, manufacture evidence and lead witnesses AND hold defense attorneys to the same standards of conduct, we will continue to lead the world in DNA and non-DNA exonerations.

Mark Bennett said...

Scott, when you talk to someone interested in sponsoring such a bill, please mention that the current civil statutes of limitations are probably not going to cut it: Sebesta's misconduct was 16 years ago (though Graves could probably argue that it continued through Sebesta's affirmatively defending the conviction and trying to influence the next jury by buying newspaper ads last year).

Alex S. said...

Of course Graves is going to be able to receive some money from the State for all the years he spent in prison. Why shouldn't Sebesta be liable (or the County) for some of that? In the Texas Monthly article Sebesta defended himself vigorously and even took out a full page ad. I wonder what he will do now?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Mark, what would the statute of limitations be on that sort of tortious civil liability (setting immunity aside for the moment)?

Hell, if nothing else Sebesta is certainly continuing to slander him! Potentially libel, too, depending on the content of the ads.

Yo Bama said...

We need the same penalties for attorneys as there are for anyone else. Misconduct of any sort, incompetence and outright neglect by persons of such a position of trust and standing is unacceptable. We hold law enforcement at such a high standard. Is it not reasonable to hold public AND private attorneys to a higher standard?

Anonymous said...

If there is to be a limit to prosecutorial immunity, there should be some symmetry to the situation. Attorneys who repeatedly file suits alleging such which are found by juries to be without merit should be forbidden to file such actions in the future, and that applies to the entire firm that the work for.

Anonymous said...

I don't know which is worse, sleazebag prosecutors or sleazebag judges. Kudos to Scott for never letting up the pressure and for his relentless advocacy. Without exception, every aspect of the corrupt Texas criminal justice system has been thoroughly dissected and exposed for what it really is.

Anonymous said...

Salem Mass 1692 = Texas 2010

Salem Witch Trials from Wikipedia:

"The episode is one the most famous cases of mass hysteria, and has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, lapses in due process, and governmental intrusion on individual liberties."

Evokes a fight or flight instinct.

yvette99 said...

If there is no consequences these corrupt DAs will continue to lie, fabricate and intimidate witnesses to win cases.
These DAs are not interested in justice, they don't know the meaning of the word but its about time the wrongfully convicted got some.
Time to make these 'criminals' pay they have got away with ruining lives and possibly killing for far too long! Just shows how evil some people can be - this DA would have let Mr Graves be executed knowing he was an innocent man!

Sam said...

Grits, I couldn't agree with you more. Immunity should not protect those prosecutors who intentionally, knowingly, and willingly flaunt the rules, hide evidence, or otherwise pervert justice. Perhaps this will get the Legislature off their duffs. Allowing criminal charges to be filed would perhaps give some pause to those who otherwise might be tempted to cross the line.

I cannot agree that it will otherwise hamstring prosecutors to have a law in place. There will always be folks who file complaints, lawsuits and harass, but if it prevents someone from spending 18 years in prison, on death row, for a crime they did not commit it is worth it.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of the statute of limitations, it would be extended by the discovery rule in a case like this. It's a common thing to have the statute run from the date a wrong is discovered, not the date it occurred, as long as the act is inherently undiscoverable as it often is in cases like this.



The real problem will be that after it's discovered, the guy will still be in jail for years and will be suing from inside prison. That just won't work. And I doubt the legislature, after being lobbied by the various state and county attorney associations, will create a statute that begins to run from the date of exoneration.

Rage

Mark Bennett said...

Grits, the SOL for torts is generally two years.

It is possible, as Rage notes in a moment of commendable lucidity, that the discovery rule (starting limitations when the bad act was discovered) would apply.

The greatest impediment to a successful lawsuit would not, however, be mere imprisonment.

Instead, it would be the rationale of Peeler v. Hughes and Luce, which protects criminal defense lawyers from civil liability unless the plaintiff first cleared his name. If (as is likely) the same rule applied to prosecutors, until Mr. Graves's case was dismissed Sebesta would have had grounds for summary judgment.

Solution?: start to run limitations from the date of exoneration; have some sort of administrative complaint procedure to preserve specific claims of prosecutorial misconduct within two years of discovery and pending exoneration; or give up the whole quixotic idea.

Angee said...

So we have criminals prosecuting criminals. It has been that way for far too long. I would think the Judges and DA's that do things right would be screaming for something to be done to get the scum out of the profession. Nobody respects the system the way it is. Justice is a joke.This situation makes everyone look bad. Anyone that would leave the profession due to changes needs to be somewhere else anyway.

Angee said...

I read the Texas monthly article with tears running down my face. Innocence is almost impossible to prove when guilt has already been decided and a huge network of people are working to stick square things into round holes. This was a long time ago when we lived in what was considered a more honorable era. We hadn't yet hit rock bottom where the only important thing in the number of convictions. That also looks great on a website. I certainly think the problem has grown by leaps and bounds. Authorities from all agencies pitch in to help get a conviction.
Scott, which of our lawmakers do you consider the most open to the idea of drafting and introducing such a bill?

Anonymous said...

A frame-up is a crime in progress. There should be no statute of limitations imposed on exonerees, who often must find shelter and work without resources provided to parolees.

Equal justice should mean just that; criminal suspects have no immunities, neither should those who arrest, prosecute and judge them. The poor seldom file lawsuits, let alone frivolous ones. Their fear of encountering Star Chambers is fully justified at present.

The American Bar and its affiliates hold civil attorneys accountable, but not prosecutors. I've collected a few complaints filed with the IRS about non-profits that have clouded agendas. It seems like a reasonable objection to raise.

The FBI is mandated to investigate public corruption that affects trial outcomes and rarely follows through, even when there are multiple upset convictions within a single county. They can be compelled to act.

Good prosecutors, like Sam Bardwell, will return to being prosecutors when it no longer a job requirement to participate in conviction corruption.

Susan Chandler

Anonymous said...

A frame-up is a crime in progress. There should be no statute of limitations imposed on exonerees, who often must find shelter and work without resources provided to parolees.

Equal justice should mean just that; criminal suspects have no immunities, neither should those who arrest, prosecute and judge them. The poor seldom file lawsuits, let alone frivolous ones. Their fear of encountering Star Chambers is fully justified at present.

The American Bar and its affiliates hold civil attorneys accountable, but not prosecutors. I've collected a few complaints filed with the IRS about non-profits that have clouded agendas. It seems like a reasonable objection to raise.

The FBI is mandated to investigate public corruption that affects trial outcomes and rarely follows through, even when there are multiple upset convictions within a single county. They can be compelled to act.

Good prosecutors, like Sam Bardwell, will return to being prosecutors when it no longer a job requirement to participate in conviction corruption.

Susan Chandler

Alex S. said...

The extent to which law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, heck, government in general, will go to prevent being proven wrong is staggering. Where is the Jiminy Cricket in people? In this case, the Rangers accepted at face value, without hesitation, the word of a confessed arsonist (who was trying to protect his wife) who was desperate to throw the guilt away from himself and it snowballed from there. The Rangers believed that it was impossible the co-defendant acted alone and so they believed him when he said Graves was involved. Then they grabbed at any and every straw that could possible link Graves to the crime. The Ranger testified that the souvenir knife Graves owned "fit into the victim's knife wounds like a glove." Sure Sebesta is at fault, but he was heavily persuaded by the law enforcement officers who investigated this case. I want them to be held accountable too. Let's not lose sight that they brought the case to him and they went on the witness stand and make impossible claims. Prosecutors do rely on the investigating officers. I want them included in the lawsuit. I want them to pay too.

Anonymous said...

3:13 has a point. Law enforcement officers are often co-conspirators with these unethical prosecutors. I've also noticed that the Texas Rangers are involved in a significant number of these cases. Ranger Kemp and the Mineola Swingers Club case is a good example. Maybe DPS needs to take a look at its hiring process for these positions. I also recall a while back that DPS started a new policy (although why they needed a "policy" to do the right thing, I don't know) that they would fire officers who lied in court. Yet, as far as I know, Kemp has not yet been fired. I guess they were just kidding about that "policy".

Anonymous said...

We've been brainwashed to not shoot them. Enforcers and other willing henchmen are often picked BECAUSE they side with those in power against We The People. The lawyers' "union" will never allow clean up of the players in this tyrannical travesty. It's too late now, as the NRA has been rote-trained to sit on their "Cold, dead fingers." We were already fee'd, fined, red-light camera'd and taxed without representation (because the "Reps" were colluding, instead) and now we have no due process. The courts have already become increasingly like the fed "Agencies"---filled with appointees and folks who can't get jobs elsewhere. The judiciary wagons are already circled so tightly--and the federally-collapsed economy will only make that increasingly worse, all levels of henchmen will further manipulate their jobs and the very regional laws to keep themselves out of the bread lines. A lawyer in Dallas two years ago told me even he knew you can't get a fair trial in Jersey Village; that's just a small microcosm of what's been dying for decades. The good, thinking lawyers are now seeking political solutions, and really that's all that's left for We The People, IF WE COULD TAKE BACK OUR STATE GOVs. Dunno about you geniuses, but I'm not holding my breath. The resources in TX make it an especially appealing place to launch & support corruption. Folks here figure they'll be even higher in the 'national' pecking order in no time. (I guess those in power are rich enough to hire private security to protect themselves from the illegals invasion, too, giving us a further distraction.)

Anonymous said...

Someone posted comment on the Texas Monthly site stating that the Ranger who lied in the Graves case is now the chief Ranger, appointed by Governor Perry. Does anyone know if that's true? If that's the case, this guy should be fired, immediately. Of course, to do that, Texans would first have to elect a governor with a little integrity.

If this is true, it could explain why other rangers have no problem with committing perjury and why Kemp hasn't yet been fired for his perjury.

Anonymous said...

Permitting cases to begin at exoneration won't really work. Exoneration is a rare form of relief. And if that's where liability for a prosecutor began, I can promise there will be fewer exonerations in the future, and simply more cases where prosecutors "decline to re-try" a defendant. Hell, judge Keller loves to invent new theories of liability during the appellate process in cases where DNA should exonerate someone but everyone from the local prosecutor to Keller say that it doesn't prove anything because "he could have had an accomplice."

Exoneration itself has to be redefined in order to take it out of the hands of the very prosecutors who need to be sued.

Rage

Hook Em Horns said...

Anonymous said...

3:13 has a point. Law enforcement officers are often co-conspirators with these unethical prosecutors. I've also noticed that the Texas Rangers are involved in a significant number of these cases. Ranger Kemp and the Mineola Swingers Club case is a good example. Maybe DPS needs to take a look at its hiring process for these positions. I also recall a while back that DPS started a new policy (although why they needed a "policy" to do the right thing, I don't know) that they would fire officers who lied in court. Yet, as far as I know, Kemp has not yet been fired. I guess they were just kidding about that "policy".

10/30/2010 03:41:00 PM
----------------------------------
This is the tip of the iceberg! This is a TEXAS PROBLEM through and through and we all KNOW IT!

Anonymous said...

A recent law review article discusses the problem of prosecutor misconduct in capital cases, available at:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1584871

Michael said...

Just saw "The Social Network" last night. When the fratboys found out that Zuckerberg had stolen their website idea, one of them quipped "I want to hire the Sopranos and have them beat the shit out of him."

Works for me.

Anonymous said...

Thus far, no comment has been made of the existing remedies. Grits suggested limit of immunity and for more recent conduct of Sebesta the private action for libel, but I like jail better.
MISBEHAVIOR OR CONTEMPT. TEX. GOVT. CODE § 82.061(a). An attorney at law may be fined or imprisoned by any court for misbehavior or for contempt of the court.
What is Contempt? Generally, contemptuous conduct is that which “tends to bring the authority and administration of the law into disrespect or disregard, interferes with or prejudices parties or their witnesses during a litigation, or otherwise tends to impede, embarrass, or obstruct the court in discharge of its duties.” Ex parte Norton, 191 S.W.2d 713 (Tex. 1946). I'd further mention an unpublished case recently dealing with a defense atty who rudely gestured to the prosecutor ( in Austin) which left that appellate court to opine disrespectful conduct toward the court, even if it does not obstruct the administration of justice, may subject an attorney to contempt.
What is Misbehavior? The legislature did not define this term (See TEX. GOVT. CODE - Definitions § 311.005) nor have I found a published Texas appellate opinion on point. TEX. GOVT. CODE § 311.011(a) provides “[w]ords and phrases shall be read in context and construed according to the rules of grammar and common usage. Justifiably, I believe this gives courts huge leeway to hold prosecutors accountable for “misbehavior.”
Put another way, § 82.061 is the waiver of official immunity you are suggesting.
There is of course the penal “official oppression” statute - a class A misdemeanor - but triable in the District Court. This has all the bells & whistles of providing for a court of inquiry and prosecutor pro tem. This would be prefect as to what occurred but for the existing two year statute of limitations. Tweak this and this is the preferred remedy... for two reasons. 1. The double recovery rule. This is why the exonerated defendant is in pickle... to accept two million or so, or to sue for more. Can't have both. 2. It shields prosecutors from vexatious (inmate) litigation that has been blogged about (but trust me there is already plenty of existing protection - quite beyond the mere issue of immunity).
But I consider the misbehavior/contempt the unexplored third rail (or more properly the forth rail). It does not depend upon the State Bar (administrative). It does not depend upon a prosecutor (criminal) - the wrongfully convicted could motion "any" court (this includes the last court that exonerated him - the Federal Court after all did have jurisdiction over the case and since Texas jurisprudence would have also applied – what would have prevented the Federal Court from entertaining such a motion for contempt?). Contempt is not a lawsuit (civil), such to get into double recovery of damages. And yet it (quasi-criminal) goes right to the heart of Sebesta's misbehavior – which, when all is said and done, goes plainly to offending the dignity of our courts and the proper administration of justice. Plus, this may surprise many, but many states have no sentencing limitation for contempt. In theory you could get life. To provide some further context, an atty in PA did 14 years (due to his ongoing) refusal to tender funds to an ex-wife. I offer this as illustrative of the existing inherent power of courts to punish for contempt.
That said I also support Grit's main premise. Limit immunity.