Monday, December 06, 2010

The Anatomy of a Frame-Up: More on Anthony Graves

In the wake of Anthony Graves' exoneration and release from capital murder charges (after spending 18 years locked up, 12 on death row), Texas Monthly's Pam Colloff has a followup article to her excellent, original story on the subject, raising even more concretely evidence of gross prosecutorial misconduct. In a pair of emails to Grits, Colloff identified some of the lowlights:
  • 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.”
What a grotesque tale of prosecutorial abuse! And yet what can be done? The State Bar (as is typical) refused to discipline prosecutor Charles Sebesta, and he has "absolute immunity" in civil court. Nobody's likely to prosecute the state actors in the case, even if someone could identify criminal laws they'd broken. Statutes of limitations have likely run out on possible perjury charges and the form of witness intimidation practiced by Sebesta is basically legal, if scurrilous and disreputable.

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:


Anonymous said...

Sebesta is protected by absolute immunity for activies intimately connected to the prosecutorial function. And, I bet in order to get his compensation from the state, Graves will have to waive any claims against Sebesta. However, this case is so egregious that I think the state should not require him to waive claims against Sebesta.

Then, although its an extreme longshot, some noble attorney should help Graves file against Sebesta. The reason I say this is because there have been two recent cases regarding prosecutorial immunity in front of the Supreme Court. One was settled after oral arguments (Pottawattamie v. McGhee) and the other is currently pending (Connick v. Thompson). I don't think the court is ready to do away with absolute prosecutorial immunity but if they see enough cases like this, then maybe, just maybe they'll start to think about it.

Furthermore, if there was any misconduct that was outside of the prosecutorial function, Sebesta could be held liable.

This is an issue the court really needs to look at. There is no common law support for the doctrine and no evidence that Congress intended it as part of Section 1983.

Another thing that should be done is that pressure needs to be put on the state bar to reinvestigate the complaint about Sebesta. I dont' know if they have any rules about how far back they can go to discipline someone but they should not just get a pass for overlooking this mess. Its time to hold them accountable also.

Prison Doc said...

With all the creative minds in our legal system, it seems hard to believe that there is no legal recourse for such egregious misconduct by so many different players.

I guess Charles from Tulia is right: maybe most Texans just like hard justice.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:57 writes: "in order to get his compensation from the state, Graves will have to waive any claims against Sebesta."

That's normally true, for sure, for the DNA exonerees who got out on habeas. In this case, though, the 5th Circuit dismissed the case on direct appeal. It's unclear whether Graves is eligible for compensation - particularly since the Comptroller has recently been nitpicking such claims - and it's possible he may have to sue to be compensated.

Good comments overall. I was disappointed Pottawattamie v. McGhee didn't reach a decision.

Anonymous said...

Prison Doc, the problem is that too many of those "brilliant" minds are focused on the opposite project. People like Sebesta or John Bradley may be smart but that doesn't mean they care about punishing prosecutor misconduct. They'll use their brilliance instead to fight every reform anyone could suggest tooth and nail, and on the taxpayers dime, too.

Anonymous said...

When prosecutors "incentivize" -- love that word Grits -- a witness to testify in a certain manner, it seems to me that it is suborning perjury-- morally if not legally.
Charles in tulia

Alex S. said...

Texas needs a Hyde Amendment statute to keep prosecutors in check. These kinds of law enforcement/prosecutorial tactics go on all over the country all the time. Only when they backfire do we ever hear about them. You think Graves' case was the only one where the Rangers or Sebesta played poker or intimidated witnesses? And where is the national press for this? This should be splattered all over the news to let the general public know and to let law enforcement know that the people are watching and will not accept this type of behavior EVER.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect...

Without the full and complete cooperation of the "Judges" in these little back-room deals, none of this would be possible.

Every prosecutor and cop in the State knows that all it takes is a wink and a nod to the judge and you have free reign to do anything you want.

Then, you end up with a Jack Skeen and Barbie Walthers running your dog and pony show for you.

If I were these people, when Civil War II starts, I would be the first to duck.

Bill Medvecky

rodsmith said...

Personally i think if even HALF of this is true. This innocent man and his family have every LEGAL right to hunt down and EXECUTE every one of these CRIMINALS who are in fact WORSE then the criminals they go after!

Don said...

Rodsmith: I understand your passion, but while one might argue that they have a MORAL right, they certainly don't have a LEGAL right, to execute anybody. That's not rational thinking.

zeety said...

Zeety's New Year's prediction: Scott Henson has been charged with some sex crime, ala Julian Assange.

It's been nice knowing you, bro.

Hook Em Horns said...

Then, although its an extreme longshot, some noble attorney should help Graves file against Sebesta.


Anonymous said...

Whoever Zeety is, Zeety needs to retract that scurrilous assertion unless he/she/it has some credible evidence to back it up. Saying absurd and defamatory things in a comment on a serious and well-run blog is no way to behave. Please grow up and learn some manners.

rodsmith said...

"Don said...
Rodsmith: I understand your passion, but while one might argue that they have a MORAL right, they certainly don't have a LEGAL right, to execute anybody. That's not rational thinking.

12/06/2010 03:51:00 PM"

How you figure that don? if a REAL COP catches someone comitting a felony they have every legal right to stop them and take them into custody even if they have to use LETHAL force during that action!

These little criminals have been caught red handed commiting so many crimes it's not funny..

you know

witness intimidation

and those are jsut the STATE charges....

Then when you have a govt that seems to not give a damn and actually protects and covers for them....all bets are off and you got to take em anyway you can.

Zeety said...

10:09 - those of us who hang around here know very well just how serious and well-run Scott's blog is. That's why we love it.

The only thing better is when jackwagons like you who take yourselves too seriously come along and let us troll you.

By the way, get a name, that whole anonymous thing is gay.

Just Sayin' said...

It is remarkable how not a single comment reflects a scintilla of appreciation for the key individual whose trade mark tenacity prevailed once again.
"Win at all costs", cuts both ways when justice is the benchmark.

Just Sayin'

Anonymous said...

Just Sayin':

Agenda driven folks are programmed to ignore the merit or value of any individual who doesn't slurp their Kool Aid, regardless of the circumstances.
Factual guilt and innocence, right and wrong, justice and injustice, etc. are of no real meaning when an individual is content to pursue a philosophical exercise that ignores reality and the actual impact of his mission.
The nobility of the anti-death folks is admirable but fails to consider the fundamentals of human nature and therein lies their fatal flaw.

Anonymous said...

Just sayin,

Look at all the posts ahead of you. But you were the first to mention the death penalty.

Maybe this is about a bigger issue. Think about it.

freekory said...