Texas State Bar Votes To Disbar Former Prosecutor For Role In Conviction Of Innocent Man

gavel2The Board of Disciplinary Appeals (appointed by the Texas Supreme Court) has upheld a state licensing board’s decision to disbar former prosecutor Charles Sebesta for his role in convicting an innocent man. Anthony Graves spent 18 years on death row for setting a fire that killed six people. Sebesta’s conduct was shocking but remains a relatively rare example of prosecutors being held accountable in such cases of prosecutorial abuse.

Sebesta had convicted Robert Carter for the murders and tried to get Carter to say Graves was an accomplice. However, just a day before the trial, Carter told Sebesta he acted alone and Graves was not involved. Sebesta withheld the information from the defense and presented false testimony implicating Graves. Sebesta also blocked an alibi witness by telling the court that the witness was a suspect in the murders and could be indicted. The witness then refused to testify.

After his conviction was reversed, a special prosecutor found in 2010 that there was no credible evidence that Graves was involved in the murders.

Sebesta now insists that he has been treated unfairly.

37 thoughts on “Texas State Bar Votes To Disbar Former Prosecutor For Role In Conviction Of Innocent Man”

  1. In addition to outright prosecutorial misconduct and coercive plea bargaining, false confessions are another significant means by which innocent people are imprisoned:

    “Researchers have been hard at work studying how it is that innocent people sometimes go to prison for crimes they did not commit. A recent report documented that in 2015 there were a record number of exonerations in the United States, as many as one in four involving false confessions. Here are three pathways to a false confession.

    “Innocence puts you at risk in an interrogation room. , ,
    If you are one of the millions of people who have listened to the podcast “Serial” or watched Netflix’s series “Making a Murderer,” you may believe there are innocent people in prison.

    “But long before the cases of Adnan Syed, Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey were brought to the public’s attention, we and other researchers have been hard at work studying how it is that innocent people sometimes go to prison for crimes they did not commit. In fact, a recent report documented that in 2015, there were a record number of exonerations in the United States.

    “While it’s difficult, if not impossible, to determine how many people have been wrongfully convicted in the United States, real-life cases reveal some of the common causes of wrongful conviction. Along with mistaken eyewitness testimony and flawed forensic science evidence, one leading cause of wrongful conviction is false confessions.

    “Yes, you read that correctly: innocent people can and do confess to horrific crimes they never committed. False confessions are a factor in approximately 25 percent of DNA exonerations in the United States. While you may think that you personally would never confess to a rape or murder you didn’t commit, research has shown that innocent people are especially vulnerable in an interrogation room. Why is this the case?

    “Why would an innocent person falsely confess?
    False confession experts Richard Leo and Steven Drizin eloquently explain that there are typically three pathways to a false confession. First, police officers mistakenly conclude that an innocent suspect is guilty. In the initial stages of the interview or interrogation, interrogators attempt to detect a suspect’s guilt or innocence through their demeanor, tone of voice and body language. The danger here is that the training police officers commonly receive on detecting deception is fraught with error.

    “Next, coercive tactics are introduced. The interrogation may be filled with accusations that the suspect is guilty, lies that there is convincing evidence against that person (police are legally permitted to lie to you) and promises of leniency and sympathy. The interrogation may last a few hours, or in some cases, even a few days.

    “Once the innocent suspect admits his or her guilt, the police then (perhaps inadvertently) contaminate the suspect’s memory. It’s not enough for the suspect to say, “I did it”; he or she must also provide a detailed narrative of the crime that fits the evidence. Whether this is done by asking leading questions (as was the case in Brendan Dassey’s interrogation), presenting the suspect with crime scene photos or playing on the suspect’s memory, the goal is to get the suspect to provide a detailed confession.
    Researchers have also discovered that certain people might be particularly vulnerable to giving a false confession. For instance, youth are at heightened risk.

    “Compared to adults, children are less able to think of long-term consequences, are more suggestible and are more focused on immediate rewards (for instance, “If I confess now, I can go home tonight”). Individuals with cognitive impairments and/or mental illness are also at increased risk of confessing to a crime they did not commit. Certain personality types may be especially susceptible, too. People who are more suggestible and/or compliant are vulnerable in an interrogation room.

    “Consider another risk factor: sleep deprivation
    In our new research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we uncovered yet another factor that may put people at risk of falsely confessing – sleep deprivation. Although we know that law enforcement officers sometimes interrogate suspects during normal sleeping hours (12-8 a.m.), there had been no empirical studies investigating the effect of sleep deprivation on the likelihood that someone will falsely confess.

    “To examine this issue, we recruited 88 college students to take part in an experiment.
    Participants arrived at the sleep lab and completed several computer-based tasks. In a procedure adapted from leading false confession expert Saul Kassin and his colleague Katherine Kiechel, we sternly and repeatedly warned participants never to press the “escape” key on their computer keyboards – we led them to believe that doing so would cause the loss of valuable study data.

    “About a week later, participants returned to the lab and either slept there overnight, or remained awake all night long. The following morning, we showed all participants a statement that documented their prior activities in the lab. Critically, the statement falsely alleged that the participant had pressed the “escape” key during the first visit to the lab. Then we urged participants to verify that the information in the statement was correct by signing their name.

    “Compared to rested participants, sleep-deprived participants were far more likely to sign the statement and falsely admit to the wrongdoing. After just one request, 18 percent of rested participants signed the statement, compared to 50 percent of sleep-deprived participants. When those who refused to sign were again urged to do so, now 39 percent of rested participants and 68 percent of sleep-deprived participants signed the statement. (Emphasis added)

    “Two simple, easily administered measures also predicted rates of false confession in our sample. Participants who were sleep-deprived were especially likely to falsely confess if they exhibited an impulsive decision-making style, as measured by the Cognitive Reflection Test. Moreover, participants who indicated they were especially sleepy on the Stanford Sleepiness Scale were also at increased risk of falsely confessing, regardless of whether they had slept or were sleep-deprived.

    “Our new findings add to the growing body of research on the causes and consequences of false confessions. Further research into the factors that contribute to false confession is crucial given that the implications of false confessions, and wrongful convictions more generally, are far too great – not only do the innocent suffer (potentially for years in prison), but the guilty remain free to commit more crimes.” (Emphasis added)

    (Shari Berkowitz is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Administration, California State University, Dominguez Hills. Elizabeth Loftus is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior, University of California, Irvine. Kimberly Fenn is Associate Professor of Psychology, Michigan State University. Steven Frenda is Postdoctoral Fellow in Psychology at the New School for Social Research, The New School)

  2. Some of the commenters seemed to be unaware that knowingly presenting false testimony before a court is a rule violation. Also making false statements about the alibi witness is a violation.

    These are probably the issues that resulted in disbarment because withholding evidence from defense lawyers happens all the time and rarely if ever is there an ethics filed for those tactics.

  3. On the other hand…..a whole bunch of warts*!*
    Dishonesty in prosecution is trumped by the jury tampering of criminal lawyers and judges when for any flimsy, irrational excuse evidence is excluded and the mad-dog criminals go free.
    At least the convicted innocents are safe from the actual perpetrators when behind bars(although the rest of us are not safe) and will die of natural causes long before the multitudes of paydays for the courthouse gang’s appeals loops have would ever fizzle out?????

  4. Good story but if we are going to start taking prosecutors’ licenses for false prosecutions, the ethics boards will be jammed with a huge backlog before ya know it.

  5. It is utterly fascinating to me to see how many people have been hoodwinked by the propagandists Avery fantasy filmmakers.. He was wrongly convicted of rape. Became an understandably very angry man and is good for the murder of the Halbach girl.

  6. As a fellow Texan in a more of less rural county, I have to say that the same thing happens where I live. I know of a couple of cases in which innocent people have been wrongly convicted by crooked cops, judges and prosecutors. They were later found innocent, but spent a lot of time in prison and nothing happened to the judge or the prosecutors. It is beyond question that many innocent people have been executed in Texas, which is why I am opposed to the death penalty in Texas since the system is so corrupt. It is unAmerican to murder an innocent person in order to execute those who are guilty of heinous crimes. Only a sadist or somebody who is totally corrupt could be so callous as to advocate such a thing.

  7. In a Democracy we have two options. Insure only the guilty go to jail, and receive the death penalty. Our laws may allow, some who may be guilty, but not to a reasonable doubt, go Free. That should be the Democratic approach. By demanding someone get locked up and Punished for Political gain,by thoes charged with enforcing the law to often locks up Innocent people. Isn’t it better to let some guilty go free rather than locking up or killing innocent people at the hands of our government.

  8. The higher the position in society, the greater the responsibility, therefore the greater the punishment. The guy should be sent to jail a la Madof.

  9. So… unable to have an adult discussion?

    What’s wrong with Joss Whedon? Who else has the comedic subtlety to portray Chevy Chase’s all American family rampaging across the country taking vengeance for dirty prosecutors losing their licenses.

    If there really was “no credible evidence that Graves was involved in the murders”, why wasn’t this presented at the trial?

    What was that about having an adult discussion? Sheesh. And they say Americans have no appreciation for irony….

    Have a nice day.

  10. This case unfortunately is all too typical of Texas justice. One can only wonder how many innocent sitizens have been executed in Texas for crimes they did not commit.Thank God and Barry Schenk for the innocence project

  11. I don’t know whether the following took into account the vast majority of convictions obtained through coercive plea bargains, in which defendants are threatened with draconian sentences if they insist on being convicted by trial. [1]

    “About 10,000 people in the United States may be wrongfully convicted of serious crimes each year, a new study suggests.

    “The results are based on a survey of 188 judges, prosecuting attorneys, public defenders, sheriffs and police chiefs in Ohio and 41 state attorneys general.

    The study also found that the most important factor leading to wrongful conviction is eyewitness

    “These findings are included in the new book Convicted But Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and Public Policy (Sage Publications, 1996). The book was written by C. Ronald Huff, director of the Criminal Justice Research Center and the School of Public Policy and Management at Ohio State University; Arye Rattner, professor of sociology at the University of Haifa, Israel; and the late Edward Sagarin, who was a professor of sociology at City College and City University of New York.

    “The survey asked respondents to estimate the prevalence of wrongful conviction in the United States. About 72 percent estimated that less than 1 percent — but more than zero — of convictions were of innocent people.

    “Based on these results, Huff estimated conservatively that 0.5 percent of the 1,993,880 convictions for index crimes in 1990 were of innocent people. (Index crimes, which are reported by the FBI, are murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson.)

    “That would result in an estimated 9,969 wrongful convictions.

    “Huff said he thinks that number is probably low. ‘Our sample was stacked in favor of obtaining conservative estimates,’ Huff said. Most of those surveyed — including prosecutors and law enforcement officials — ‘have every reason to defend the system’s accuracy and underestimate error,’ he said. Only 9 percent of the respondents were public defenders, who might be more critical of the criminal justice system. (Emphasis added)

    “Wrongful convictions undermine public confidence in the judicial system and should be viewed with alarm, said Huff.

    “It troubles Huff that liberals seem more concerned about the issue than conservatives. ‘Conservatives, too, should be concerned because it’s a public safety issue. The actual offender remains free to victimize other citizens.’ ”

    [1] “Coercive Plea Bargaining: The Unrecognized Scourge of the Justice System”

  12. KCF,
    Your posts remind me of this from Frederic Bastiat:

    ” No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.

    The nature of law is to maintain justice. This is so much the case that, in the minds of the people, law and justice are one and the same thing. There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things are “just” because law makes them so.”

    When our constitution is no longer the highest “law” in the land then we will need to have organizations like “The Innocence Project” as a voice for those needing true justice.

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