Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Bully

I can still hear his voice. Scratchy, high pitched, with a long drawl that punctuated words for emphasis. I met Charles Sebesta in 1992, shortly after leaving a civil firm and going to work for a criminal defense lawyer in Bryan, a short distance from where Sebesta was district attorney. I had never practiced criminal law. Everything was new. New law, new clients, new to dealing with prosecutors.

Amongst all these new things, Charles Sebesta stood out.

The reporting on Sebesta's prosecution of Anthony Graves, and Graves' conviction at Sebesta's hands for capital murder and resulting death sentence have been throughly documented, perhaps best by Pamela Colloff in her extraordinary Texas Monthly piece from 2010. However, it was Graves' comments to Colloff after the disbarment news broke concerning other Sebesta prosecutions that hit me where I lived:
'I think this is a great first step,' [Graves] said. 'But a lot of people in Washington and Burleson counties were prosecuted and convicted by Charles Sebesta, and some of them are still behind bars. All of those cases need to be examined, too.'
Although his jurisdiction included larger Washington county, Sebesta's primary office was in Caldwell, the county seat of Burleson county. He held court in his office on the top floor of the courthouse, down a long hallway next to a set of narrow stairs that led (and still lead) to a side entrance to the district courtroom. The space is now occupied by a district court judge.

Colloff notes in the TM story hyperlinked above about the Sebesta's disbarment:
It was a stunning reversal of fortune for a man who was, for decades, the most powerful elected official in Burleson and Washington counties.
The newbie criminal defense lawyer I was in the early 1990's thought so. Sebesta WAS the most powerful elected official in, particularly, Burleson county. He was not afraid to bully, cajole or just knowingly smile at disagreement. To this end, like Graves' comments, it was finding of fact number 10 from the Judgment of Disbarment that was the most jarring to me:
Graves presented an alibi defense at trial. The defense centered around witnesses that put him in Brenham, Texas on the night of the murders. Yolanda Mathis ("Mathis") was Graves' girlfriend and had previously testified at grand jury that she had been with Graves during the critical time period on the night of the murders. After being sworn in and placed under the Rule, but before the defense called her to the stand at trial, and while Mathis was not in the courtroom, Sebesta stated in open court that:
Mr. Sebesta: Judge, when they call Yolanda Mathis we would ask, outside the presence of the jury that the Court warn her of her rights. She is a suspect in these murders and it's quite possible, at some point in the future, she might be indicted. I don't know. And I feel outside the presence of the jury that it would be proper to warn her of her rights.
Sebesta had no evidence or information tending to show Yolanda Mathis was a suspect or had any involvement in the murders. Whether the result was intended or not, Yolanda Mathis refused to appear as a witness for the defense after this false statement was uttered to the court. Sebesta's statement to the court was false and in violation of Rule 3.03(a)(l).
The statement above quoted was on the record in a capital murder/death penalty case. Can you imagine the number of times some variant of this tactic was used in service of securing capitulation in cases Sebesta convinced himself about? This was the kind of thing the defense bar got from him. I never tried a case against Sebesta. I was intimidated by him. That is no excuse. You have to push back on bullies. A quarter century after meeting him I try and take solace in that he hardened of my resolve to become a better criminal defense lawyer. It is little comfort, even after this span of time.

Sebesta's protestations about the accusations against him have been, up until the actual grievance proceedings, very public and vocal. As of this writing he still has an active website deriding the accusations against him. Sebesta had public comments about the complaint to Maggie Kiely of the Bryan/College Station Eagle in January, 2014. All the more ironic then, when it came time to decide whether the grievance proceedings would subject to public viewing in a court of record or a private proceeding before the grievance committee, Sebesta chose closed doors.

Importantly, Brian Baker was the presiding member of the evidentiary panel which made the findings and conclusions resulting in the Judgment of Disbarment. Baker is a prosecutor. His father is a prosecutor. Brian is first assistant district attorney for Brazos County. I was part of a team that tried a Capital Murder/Death Penalty case against him.

One other thing. Brian's boss, the elected district attorney of Brazos County, Texas is Jarvis Parsons. Jarvis is African American. Brazos County is now the largest county in Texas with a district attorney of color. Not exactly relevant, but worth a note.

I will be in Burleson county district court Monday morning. The same courtroom down the back stairwell from Sebesta's old office.

The ghosts live on.

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