Thursday, June 18, 2015

One miscarriage of justice wasn't quite enough?

The following editorial was published by the Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, GA) on June 15, 2015.

The particular case at hand happened in Texas, but this isn't really about Texas. It's about justice. (Abundant evidence to the contrary, the two are not mutually exclusive.)

As reported over the weekend, a former prosecutor named Charles Sebesta, who spent 25 years as a district attorney in a couple of mostly rural Texas counties about 100 miles from Houston, had to forfeit his law license after a State Bar of Texas review panel concluded he was guilty of professional misconduct.

Lest that sound too dully bureaucratic -- like maybe he fudged on some paperwork -- Sebesta's "misconduct" consisted of withholding evidence and using false testimony (that's called "perjury" in some legal circles) to win a capital murder conviction against a suspect named Anthony Graves for the 1992 killings of six people. A federal appeals court overturned Graves' conviction in 2006, and four years later a special prosecutor concluded he was innocent of the crime and should be freed.

All told, Anthony Graves spent a dozen years on death row, including four after a federal court overturned his original conviction.

The egregiousness of the prosecutorial misconduct in this case boggles the mind. The ultimate outcome, had not the appeals process (and a few strokes of good luck) worked in Graves' favor, should sicken every American whose conscience isn't in need of defibrillation.

The actual murderer, a man named Robert Earl Carter, testified at trial that Graves was his accomplice. Sebesta knew Carter had testified before a grand jury that he acted alone, yet the prosecutor let Carter and another witness give false testimony to win a conviction against Graves. (Carter repeatedly recanted his implication of Graves, including in the final moments before his execution in 2000.)

Had the sheer corruption of Graves' prosecution and sentencing not been uncovered, an innocent man would have been murdered -- however the law might define it, there is no other adequate practical term for it -- in the name of The People.

Any argument that justice has ultimately prevailed in this case would be feeble to the point of moral obscenity. An innocent man lost 12 years of his life, and almost his life itself. A guilty one lost his law license.

The question that hangs over this particular case is obvious: Why is Charles Sebesta himself not headed for prison? In what universe of justice is willful judicial fraud, with consequences so catastrophic, punishable by nothing worse than losing one's job?

A larger question hangs over the larger issue: Why aren't there more and better investigative, prosecutorial and judicial review processes in place for when criminal justice has gone so horribly wrong? News stories about innocent people being freed after years behind bars have become appallingly familiar. And while very few of them involve this kind of horrific prosecutorial misconduct, they still result in wrongs that can never really be righted.

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