- Former special prosecutor Patrick Batchelor—who prosecuted Cameron Todd Willingham—told Graves and his defense team in 2008 that he would drop all charges against Graves if he passed a polygraph exam. Even though there was so little evidence in the case that Batchelor could make an offer as outlandish as that, he still pursued a case against Graves for the three years that he served as special prosecutor.
- Assistant district attorney Lance Kutnick sought to build a case against Graves using the testimony of Keith Pikett—who conducted a “scent lineup” in the Graves case—as recently as 2009.
- Texas Ranger Ray Coffman, who was the lead investigator in the case, gave conflicting accounts under oath at pre-trial hearings in 2006 and 2007 regarding whether or not Robert Carter (the crime’s main suspect, who initially fingered Graves as the killer) had told him that he had acted alone when he killed the Davis family. Coffman was the head of the Texas Rangers when he gave this conflicting testimony.
- Former Burleson County D.A. Charles Sebesta told Graves’s trial judge and the victims’ family that Graves was a suspect in the Yogurt Shop Murders.
- During Kelly Siegler’s re-investigation of the case, Ranger Coffman recounted a conversation had had with Sebesta, that had taken place in 1992, just before a grand jury was to begin examining what role Carter’s wife, Cookie Carter, might have played in the murders. The retired Ranger said he had asked Sebesta, “How are you going to get an indictment on her when we don’t have any evidence?” As Coffman told it, Sebesta had gestured with one hand, as if rolling dice, then boasted, “I’m going to play me a little Tennessee gambler today.”
- Cookie’s former attorney, Rob Neal, told Siegler not long after Cookie was charged in the Davis murders that Sebesta assured him that he had no actual intention of prosecuting her. In fact, Neal told Siegler, shortly before Cookie’s probable cause hearing, she was released on a $50,000 personal bond, just eight weeks after being indicted for capital murder. As I explain in the story, the significance of Neal’s and Coffman’s disclosures was enormous, since the implicit threat of Cookie’s prosecution had been instrumental in getting a reluctant Carter to finally agree to testify against Graves. (Carter penned a letter four years after the trial in which he claimed to have falsely testified against Graves in order to protect his wife, who was “totally innocent,” he wrote. “The DA and law enforcement believe she was involved, so I lied on an innocent man to keep my family safe.”) Neal believed Cookie was indicted so that Sebesta would have leverage against Carter.
- Two investigators visited Graves’s sister, Dietrich Curry—who was one of his alibi witnesses—before his trial and informed her that if she left the county to testify at his trial (the case was moved on a change of venue to Angleton) that she would be arrested on outstanding traffic warrants.
- During Graves’s trial, Sebesta told the judge that Graves’s most important alibi witness—his girlfriend, Yolanda Mathis—had become a suspect in the murders and he asked that the judge read her her rights before she took the stand. The Rangers who initially investigated the case told Siegler that Mathis had never, in fact, been a suspect in the case. My story goes on to explain: “If someone needs to be warned of their rights in a criminal trial, they can’t be called to testify,” Siegler explained. “Sebesta knew what a good witness [Yolanda Mathis] was—he had heard her grand jury testimony—and he didn’t want the jury hearing what she had to say.” His gamble worked: Yolanda, who became hysterical, left the courthouse. “Then he had the nerve in final arguments to say, ‘Where’s Yolanda?’ ” said Siegler. “And the jury never knew why she didn’t show up.”
- Current Burleson County DA Bill Parham told me, “When you look at what happened to both [Dietrich Curry] and Yolanda, you start to see a pattern of witness intimidation.”
It's difficult to understand the motive for using such tactics to frame an innocent man, but it's easy to see why Sebesta could get away with it. Witness intimidation, concealing exculpatory evidence ... these are activities for which prosecutors may be criticized after the fact but for which they seemingly cannot be effectively disciplined. In rare cases like Graves', appellate courts might reverse such actions (in this case a federal court overturned the conviction), but even then there are no consequences for those who engaged in misconduct. Bottom line: As the law currently stands, Texas prosecutors just get to do this without recourse. There is presently no institution or formal mechanism capable of holding them accountable when their own moral code fails to restrain their darker impulses.
MORE: From the Dallas News Death Penalty Blog.
See related Grits posts:
- Governor: Graves case shows system works (just not Texas')
- Flurry of media surrounding Anthony Graves exoneration
- Legislature should limit immunity for sleazebag prosecutors like Charles Sebesta
- Anthony Graves: Innocent and free 16 years after unfounded death sentence
- Progress and its Discontents - or, What I learned from an article in Texas Monthly (guest post by Jeff Blackburn)