Javert Syndrome, Texas justice, and Satanic baby-killers

Javert Syndrome, Texas justice, and Satanic baby-killers July 9, 2014

Charles Kuffner shares some news of justice long-delayed in Texas. This is from Pamela Colloff’s report in Texas Monthly,Anthony Graves’ Prosecutor Finally Has to Answer for His Actions“:

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.

I wrote about this general phenomenon recently — wait, (double-checks), in 2004 and 2003, actually, so not that recently — describing what I call “Javert Syndrome.” It’s the pathological response that sometimes occurs when police, prosecutors, witnesses and/or victims become unable “to accept that their initial suspicions are wrong even when confronted with undeniable proof of innocence.”

The consequence of Javert Syndrome is always a double injustice. An innocent person, like Anthony Graves, winds up in prison for a crime they did not and could not have committed. And at the same time, the actual criminal remains free — uncharged and unpursued by justice.

Thus, for example, the long-delayed release and begrudging non-exoneration of the West Memphis Three finally corrected one injustice — three innocent men were no longer being imprisoned for a crime they did not commit. But for more than 20 years, the murderer of three young children in West Memphis has gone unpunished. The killer of those boys hasn’t been a fugitive, he simply got away with it as police and prosecutors infected with Javert Syndrome focused all their attention in the wrong direction.

Anthony Graves’ case is rare in that he was falsely accused of being the accomplice of the actual killer — a man who, in fact, had no accomplice. (For a blood-boiling account of the case, watch 48 Hours’ excellent report, “Grave Injustice.”)

Former DA Charles Sebesta seems to have a very bad case of Javert Syndrome. Graves didn’t just have his earlier conviction overturned, but was formally exonerated — something that only happens when there’s clear proof of innocence, not merely the absence of clear proof of guilt.

The state of Texas has accepted that proof of innocence, eventually agreeing to pay more than $1 million to Graves for his wrongful imprisonment and the 18 years he spent on death row. But Sebesta cannot accept that proof. He cannot accept reality because he has become far too invested in unreality.

Sebesta’s identity became invested in this case. He was able to think of himself as righteous based on the unrighteousness of this evil murderer he was prosecuting. That identification, that sense of righteousness, became his justification for doing whatever he needed to do to secure a conviction — even when that meant withholding exculpatory evidence and relying on testimony he ought to have known was false. “Mine is the way of the Lord,” he tells himself. Anthony Graves is bad and I am good. Anthony Graves is very bad and therefore I must be very good.

Once one’s identity is invested in that comparison and contrast, one cannot bear to learn that one was mistaken about the evil other. Sebesta cannot accept Graves’ exoneration, not because of what it means about Graves, but because of what it means about him.

There’s no getting around that by being particularly charitable, solicitous, tactful or civil. No matter how nice, kind or loving one is in defending the innocence of the falsely accused, those who have invested their identity in prosecuting them will always perceive such a defense as a vicious, nasty attack against them — an attack against their self-concept of being unquestionably righteous, good and just.

And that, folks, is why it will always be so difficult to get our anti-abortion neighbors to accept the exoneration of those whom they are invested in regarding as Satanic baby-killers. To accept that these supposed baby-killers are not the criminals they have claimed would mean that they, too, are not who they have claimed to be all this time.

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