Woman in last-minute appeal to avoid Texas execution

Susan Basso (59) to die by leathal injection for role in death of mentally disabled man she let on she would marry

In an event rare even for the US's busiest death chamber, Suzanne Basso is set to become the 14th woman executed in America since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Basso is scheduled to die by lethal injection in Texas at 6pm today (12am Irish time). Her lawyer, Winston Cochran, said he would mount last-minute appeals and potentially take the case to the supreme court.

If he fails, the 59-year-old Basso will be the first woman to be put to death in America since last June, when Kimberly McCarthy became the 500th person executed by Texas in the modern era.

Three women have been executed in the US since 2002 - two in Texas, by far the nation’s most-active death-penalty state.


Women account for about 10 per cent of murder arrests but only 2.1 per cent of death sentences imposed at trial, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre. Those sentences are often not carried out: of the 1,365 people executed in the US since 1976, 13 were female.

There are eight other women on Texas' death row, including Linda Carty, a British citizen. Basso is the sole woman in the US with an execution date, according to the centre.

Originally from New York, Basso was found guilty of the 1998 murder of 59-year-old Louis “Buddy” Musso.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, she lured the mentally disabled man from New Jersey to Texas under the pretence that she would marry him, and was the ringleader of a group who tortured and killed him by kicking and beating him with belts, baseball bats, steel-toed boots, hands and feet. He was found by a road in a Houston suburb with extensive injuries.

Basso’s five co-defendants, including her son, were convicted of involvement in Musso’s killing but not sentenced to death. At the trial in 1999 it was suggested that Basso hoped to cash in on his life insurance payout.

Her lawyer, Winston Cochran, has argued that the case against his client has three major flaws: no mitigating evidence was presented at trial, the testimony of a medical examiner was questionable, and no testimony or evidence shows that she personally killed Musso or proves exactly how he died.

“[The prosecution] could not to this day tell you who did it,” Cochran said.

“They had bad forensics in this case and they didn’t do a thing about it . . . she was a fat, unattractive woman and it made a good show case. A couple of prosecutors made their careers out of this.”

He contends that Basso’s trial failed to mention circumstances that might have led to a lesser sentence, including a long history of mental illness and delusions and being physically and sexually abused as a child.

At a hearing last December, Basso claimed that a prison nurse tried to kill her by smuggling a snake into her hospital room inside a book about Roy Rogers, the cowboy actor.

Basso testified last year from a bed wheeled into court. She has said she became paralysed as the result of a beating by prison guards, though according to Cochran her condition is the result of a degenerative disease.

Court filings cast doubt on the competence of Dr Paul Shrode, a former Harris County medical examiner who provided testimony about the damage to Musso's body and the cause of death during the trial. A writ refers to "Shrode's history of giving unreliable testimony and of misrepresenting his personal credentials".

He was fired as El Paso's chief medical examiner in 2010 after Ohio's Parole Board voted for clemency for a death row inmate in large part because Shrode's testimony from 13 years prior had been discredited.

Basso’s lawyer argued that Shrode “fabricated credentials and hypothesised expansively”. In 2007 it emerged that Shrode had put on his CV that he had a graduate degree in law and was a member of the State Bar of Texas. Neither claim was true.

Several state and federal appeals have failed and last month a judge in Houston ruled that Basso was mentally-competent enough to be executed.

How long she will take to die in the state penitentiary in Huntsville is uncertain. A Guardian investigation last week found that Texas executions now take on average twice as long as they did before the summer of 2012, when supply shortages forced the state to switch from a three-drug cocktail to a single drug, the anaesthetic pentobarbital.

Before the one-drug protocol was adopted, Texas executions reliably lasted between 9-11 minutes from the administration of the lethal injection to the declaration of death. Since, the duration has varied wildly: from a minimum of 12 minutes to a maximum of 30. Ten of the 27 executions since the change have taken at least 25 minutes.

Last year, Texas was forced to turn to a pharmacy near Houston to produce a compounded version of pentobarbital. With overseas companies increasingly refusing to supply drugs for executions on ethical grounds, some states are using experimental mixes produced by lightly-regulated pharmacies. This has prompted lawyers and activists to argue that these methods may amount to "cruel and unusual" punishment in violation of the US constitution. A man executed last month in Oklahoma said he felt "my whole body burning".

An execution scheduled for today in Louisiana was postponed for three months to allow a review of the intended drugs. Christopher Sepulvado had been set to die through a combination of the same drugs that reportedly left Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire gasping for breath for at least ten minutes on a gurney last month.

Amid the scrutiny, states are going to great lengths to keep details about drugs and their providers secret.

Ahead of the controversial execution of Edgar Tamayo last month, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said they are "not commenting on our supply of drugs".

Guardian Service