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Anthony Graves

Reducing solitary confinement

This is good.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Almost five years after images surfaced of a mentally ill inmate wallowing in a cell full of human waste and bugs, the Harris County jail has cut in half its use of solitary confinement.

The decrease is due in part to a decision to stop putting rule-breakers in solitary, officials say, and in part to the creation of two rehabilitative mental health units that provide a path out of isolation.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Anthony Graves, a death row exoneree who has spoken out against the use of solitary confinement since his release. “It says that people are now getting serious about criminal justice reform.”

In the fall of 2014, the jail had 240 inmates isolated in so-called administrative separation. By March of this year, that number had plummeted to 122, or just over 1 percent of the jail’s population, according to data from the office of Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.

[…]

“There’s a nationwide trend where correctional facilities are moving away from the use of administrative separation and in keeping with best practices and current practices, and also trying to do what’s best for the inmates themselves,” [Sheriff’s Office Major John] Martin said. “There are a lot of studies out there that suggest keeping them confined by themselves might not be best so gradually we started changing a lot of our practices. I think a difficult part is changing mindsets – just getting people to think differently.”

The following year, in an effort to shift mentally ill inmates out of isolation, the jail launched the first of two pilot programs. The 2015 initiative, now known as the Social Learning Program and housed in the 2L unit at the 1200 Baker complex, holds just under two dozen inmates who get 16 hours of out-of-cell time per day.

“They were in the hole — but now they’re not because of the program,” said Major Mike Lee, who oversees the jail’s mental health and diversion programs.

In the 2L unit, arrestees get programming and cognitive behavioral therapy-based groups twice a day. Groups focus on communication skills, medication management and anger management.

“It’s so they won’t resort to the same behaviors when they get out,” said Sean McElroy, the jail’s mental health program administrator through The Harris Center.

But part of the goal is also that, after some time spent in the program, the inmates can be transferred back to general population.

“It’s something we feel is in everybody’s best interest,” Martin said.

Michele Deitch, a criminal-justice expert and senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Austin, concurred, adding that mentally ill inmates are often at a higher risk for landing in solitary.

“It’s well-established that solitary confinement is detrimental to the health of people, especially people with mental illness,” she said. “People with mental illness are far more vulnerable than other populations in the jail. They are more likely to be exploited by other inmates, they’re less likely to be able to follow directions, they are more likely to deteriorate under the conditions of confinement in the jail and, because of their frequent inability to conform their behavior to the rules, they are disproportionately likely to end up in solitary.”

This is what I want to see. This change in policy is more humane, will lead to better outcomes, and will ultimately cost the county less money. And it’s just heartening to see the Sheriff’s office staying on top of staying on top of the research and following the best practices. We deserve and should expect nothing less.

Sebesta remains disbarred

Good.

Anthony Graves

The disciplinary board of the Texas State Bar on Monday affirmed the agency’s decision to disbar Charles Sebesta, the former prosecutor who oversaw the wrongful death sentence of Anthony Graves.

Graves, who spent 18 years in prison, including 12 on death row, for a fiery multiple murder he did not commit, filed a complaint against Sebesta in January 2014. He asked the Bar to hold Sebesta accountable for withholding critical evidence of his innocence.

“The bar stepped in to say that’s not the way our criminal justice system should work,” Graves said. “This is a good day for justice.”

[…]

In their ruling on the Sebesta’s disbarrment Monday, the disciplinary board called his conduct in the Graves case “egregious.”

The board’s decision on Sebesta’s appeal is final.

See here for the background. At the time of the appeal, Sebesta’s attorney said the board’s decision would be final, which I take to mean he won’t try to find some other avenue to keep fighting this, like a lawsuit or something. I hope that’s the case, and I hope this will finally force the man to come to terms with his actions, and to try to make amends while he still can. I don’t expect that he will, but I hope that he will. If not, he will forever serve as a bad example.

Sebesta appeals disbarment

This saga that I thought was over still has another chapter in it.

Anthony Graves

Lawyers for Charles Sebesta, the ex-prosecutor who secured the wrongful death sentence of Anthony Graves, told a panel of the State Bar of Texas on Friday that he should not be disbarred based on technicalities in the rules that govern lawyer discipline.

[…]

Jane Webre, who was defending Sebesta before the disciplinary board, argued that bar rules prevent the board from making a different ruling on Graves’ recent complaint after it already determined the former prosecutor wasn’t subject to disbarment for his role in that conviction.

“In order for the system to function properly, it’s important that the bar apply the rules fairly and consistently,” Webre told the Texas State Bar Board of Disciplinary Appeals.

Sebesta argued that the bar dismissed the previous complaint not only because of the time bar but also because they found no merit in the accusations against him.

Cynthia Hamilton, senior appellate lawyer for the commission for lawyer discipline at the State Bar, told the panel that Sebesta’s disbarment should remain in effect. In dismissing the previous claim, she said, the Bar did not address the merits of the claims of misconduct, only the statute of limitations, which lawmakers have since extended.

“It was Mr. Sebesta’s own flawed analysis of the definition of just cause that led him to that conclusion,” Hamilton said.

Additionally, she said, if the disciplinary rules were applied as Sebesta contends they should be, lawyers would not face discipline in instances where additional evidence of serious wrongdoing came to light after an initial complaint was dismissed. That would give lawyers – who are not required to cooperate with bar investigators – an incentive to conceal information, she said.

Further, she argued, lawmakers changed the statute of limitations governing prosecutor discipline in 2013 specifically to allow the kind of sanction Sebesta is facing.

“The Legislature gave the [chief disciplinary counsel] its marching orders,” Hamilton said.

See here for the background. I love how guys like Sebesta always reach for the technicalities when the spotlight turns to their own behavior. I’m sure he was ever so solicitous of those finer points of law when he was DA. Be that as it may, he is entitled to a review, and if his argument is deemed valid, then so be it. I personally think Ms. Hamilton has by far the stronger case, and I hope the State Bar sees it that way as well. I agree completely with what Anthony Graves says:

Graves said he said he is confident the panel will uphold Sebesta’s disbarment. And their decision, he said, will have consequences for prosecutors statewide.

“If they uphold the ruling, it says we’re not going to allow prosecutors to just do what they want in the courtroom and not be held accountable,” Graves said. “If they reinstate him, it says to the public that we really don’t care about you, we just protect our own.”

Amen. I don’t know when the State Bar will rule on this, but I hope they get it right.

Sebesta disbarred

A fitting end to this story.

Anthony Graves

The former prosecutor who won a wrongful conviction of Anthony Graves for capital murder, sending him to Texas death row where he was nearly executed twice, has been disbarred.

In a ruling released Thursday, the State Bar of Texas found that Charles Sebesta committed “professional misconduct” as Burleson County District Attorney when he prosecuted Graves in 1994 for a family’s murder. Graves’ co-defendant, Robert Carter, who was executed in 2000, admitted he was the lone killer.

The bar complaint against Sebesta was filed by Graves, who was freed in 2010 after serving 18 years in prison, 16 of them on death row. Graves said his complaint was “nothing personal,” but an attempt to correct the criminal justice system.

“That ruling is more for the system than it is about me,” Graves told The Texas Tribune. “It’s about holding everyone responsible, and this is all part of it.”

The bar’s disciplinary panel found several prosecutorial mistakes by Sebesta. Even though Carter denied Graves’ involvement when he testified before a grand jury, Sebesta did not correct Carter’s false testimony against Graves at Graves’ trial.

Also during the trial, Sebesta told the court that an alibi witness about to testify on Graves’ behalf was a suspect in the same murders. She was not. But after the courtroom statement by Sebesta was made, the witness, Graves’ girlfriend at the time, Yolanda Mathis, refused to testify.

“Sebesta had no evidence or information tending to show Yolanda Mathis was suspect or had any involvement in the murders,” the bar’s disciplinary panel found.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the ruling. This action is entirely appropriate, and I only wish it could have happened sooner. Prosecutors who lie, cheat, and flout the rules of justice need to be held accountable for their actions. Anthony Graves is right, it’s not about him, it’s about making justice more fair for everyone. We’re a little bit closer to that now. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Here’s Pamela Coloff‘s take.

Charles Sebesta may finally have to face responsibility for his actions against Anthony Graves

Very good news.

Anthony Graves

It’s been eight years since the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the DA who prosecuted Anthony Graves for capital murder had done something unconscionable : withheld favorable evidence and used false testimony to secure a conviction—a conviction that sent Graves to death row.

Since that federal ruling came down in 2006, granting Graves a retrial, many good things have happened: Anthony was freed from prison in 2010, after all charges against him were dropped; he was formally exonerated by the State of Texas; and he received $1.4 million in compensation for the eighteen years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit. But the man who secured his 1994 conviction—former Burleson County DA Charles Sebesta— never faced any consequences. The state bar took no action against him. Even when he continued to impugn Graves’ character, telling Texas newspapers as recently as this January that Graves was guilty of murder, he did so with impunity.

Finally, last week—twenty years after Graves’ wrongful conviction—the bar took a small but significant step toward ensuring that Sebesta would have to answer for his actions. The bar’s chief disciplinary counsel determined that there was “just cause” to believe that the former prosecutor had engaged in misconduct in Graves’ case. This finding followed a lengthy investigation, which the bar conducted after Graves brought a grievance against Sebesta this January. (Graves was only able to do so because lawmakers recently passed Senate Bill 825, which changed the existing statute of limitations, allowing exonereees to file such grievances with the bar up to four years after their release from prison.)

A legal proceeding will now follow, in which the bar will decide whether or not to dismiss the grievance, or sanction Sebesta. If the bar decides to sanction him, he could receive a punishment as light as a reprimand—essentially a slap on the wrist—or as severe as disbarment.

Though Sebesta has always put great stock in trying people before the court of public opinion—to this day, he continues to insinuate on his website that Graves is a murderer —he has asked that the bar hear his case in a confidential proceeding, rather in than open court. (The bar allows attorneys who are the subject of such grievances to choose whether they will have their cases heard in a district court before a judge or jury, or privately, before a panel of lawyers who serve on the bar’s grievance committee.) “His conduct against Anthony Graves was in a public proceeding and he continues to make public attacks on Mr. Graves,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a non-profit organization that represents Graves, along with attorneys in the Houston law firm Susman Godfrey. “He should defend his conduct in a public proceeding, for all to see.”

See here and here for the background. I find it utterly risible that Sebesta wants a closed hearing given the way he has (and continues to) run off his mouth about Anthony Graves, but whatever. Have a fair hearing and then disbar the SOB. Anything less would be insufficient. The Trib, the AusChron, and Grits, who has statements from Graves, the Texas Defender Service, and Kathryn Kase (all of whom amusingly and appropriately reference the actions of “honest” prosecutors in getting to the truth of the matter), have more.

State Bar investigating Charles Sebesta

Good.

Anthony Graves

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.

[…]

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.

State Sens. Rodney Ellis and John Whitmire, and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, all Houston Democrats, joined Graves in calling for accountability for Sebesta at a Wednesday press conference.

“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.”

See here for the background. I hope they nail him. Sen. Ellis has more on his Facebook page.

Charles Sebesta needs to be held accountable

Amen to this.

Anthony Graves

Former Texas death row inmate Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years behind bars before he was exonerated in the bloody 1992 slaying of a Somerville grandmother, her daughter and four grandchildren, is seeking justice against the man who put him there.

In 2006, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Graves’ capital murder conviction when a three-judge panel said he deserved a new trial after ruling that Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta elicited false statements from two witnesses and withheld two statements that could have changed the minds of jurors.

Graves, who was released from prison in October 2010, is taking advantage of a new state law that allows a grievance against a prosecutor to be filed within four years of a wrongfully imprisoned person’s release.

State Sens. Rodney Ellis, John Whitmire and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, all Houston Democrats, stood behind Graves on the campus of Texas Southern University on Monday as he and his attorneys urged the Texas State Bar to investigate and discipline Sebesta.

“I am asking prosecutors who operate with the highest integrity to support me,” Graves, 48, told reporters. “I am seeking justice for the man who wrongfully prosecuted me.”

[…]

Graves and his attorney, Bob Bennett, said the new law remedies the statute of limitations rule.

“There’s been no final order,” Bennett said. “Even if it was dismissed, you still have the option of coming back because there’s been no final order.”

Whitmire and Thompson sponsored the bill that was one of several that passed last year as details of Michael Morton’s wrongful murder conviction and exoneration came to light.

Anthony Graves deserves justice in the same way and for the same reasons as Michael Morton. In many ways, the injustice done to Graves was worse. If you’re not familiar with Anthony Graves, read this report by Texas Monthly writer Pamela Colloff, who is the authoritative source on Graves and Morton. That article was published on the day that Graves was freed after the charges against him were dropped.

Not until yesterday morning did Burleson County district attorney Bill Parham and special prosecutor Kelly Siegler explain why they had made such a dramatic about-face. At a press conference at the D.A.’s office in Brenham—just across the street from the courthouse where Graves’s retrial was to have taken place early next year—Parham told reporters that he was “absolutely convinced” of Graves’s innocence after his office conducted a thorough examination of his case. Parham was clear that this was not a matter of having insufficient evidence to take to trial; charges were not dropped because too many witnesses had died over the years or because the evidence had become degraded. “There’s not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case,” he said. “There is nothing.”

Former Harris County assistant district attorney Kelly Siegler, who has sent nineteen men to death row in her career, went even further in her statements. Siegler laid the blame for Graves’s wrongful conviction squarely at the feet of former Burleson County D.A. Charles Sebesta. “Charles Sebesta handled this case in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare,” Siegler said. Over the past month, she explained, she and her investigator, retired Texas Ranger Otto Hanak, reviewed what had happened at Graves’s trial. After talking to witnesses and studying documents, they were appalled by what they found. “It’s a prosecutor’s responsibility to never fabricate evidence or manipulate witnesses or take advantage of victims,” she said. “And unfortunately, what happened in this case is all of these things.” Graves’s trial, she said, was “a travesty.”

So yeah, this is a big deal. You need to read Colloff’s two feature stories to get the full measure of outrage at this horror. Sebesta avoided any repercussions for his abhorrent actions initially because Texas’ law at the time started the clock on the statute of limitations way too soon. Here’s Colloff again with the details.

At first glance, the bar’s lack of action against Sebesta is confounding. Why would the statute of limitations prohibit the agency from taking action against Sebesta, who prosecuted Graves in 1994, but not against Anderson, who prosecuted Morton seven years earlier, in 1987? The answer lies in one simple detail: the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the facts of the offense—such as withholding evidence favorable to the accused—are discovered (or, in legalese, “become discoverable”). In the recent proceedings against Anderson, the bar persuasively argued that the statute of limitations did not begin running until 2011, when the transcript describing Morton’s son’s account of the killer was found in Anderson’s files. Such a strategy was not possible with Sebesta, Acevedo told me, because “the information at issue”—i.e., that he withheld favorable evidence—“was known more than four years before the grievance was filed.”

Bennett, who filed the grievance, takes issue with that, arguing that the Fifth Circuit’s ruling “was the official notice of what had taken place.” And Graves’s attorney, Cásarez, believes that’s key. While it’s true that Graves’s lawyers learned in 1998 that Carter had repeatedly told Sebesta of Graves’s innocence, when they took a deposition from Carter at that time, it was simply a defendant’s word against that of a sitting district attorney. It was not until 2006 that the Fifth Circuit made an official finding that Sebesta had withheld evidence. “Now, how can someone file a grievance and expect to get anywhere until a court finds that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct?” Cásarez wondered.

Thankfully, SB825 took care of that loophole last year. Now maybe Charles Sebesta will finally be held to account for his actions. The Trib and Colloff again have more.