Paralyzed and still put to death

February 13, 2014

Mark Clements of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty looks at the facts in the case of another victim of the execution machine in Texas.

ON FEBRUARY 5, the state of Texas carried out the legal lynching of a 59-year-old woman who was paralyzed and endured a long history of mental illness.

Suzanne Basso was convicted of the murder of Louis "Buddy" Musso, allegedly so she could make herself the beneficiary of Musso's life insurance policies. Basso and five others were convicted of the torture and murder of the victim, though prosecutors only asked for the death penalty for Basso.

Basso was paralyzed from the chest down at the time of her execution. She claimed this was the result of abuse by prison guards after her incarceration--her attorney said it was the result of a degenerative condition.

Basso also had many documented episodes of mental illness--but her attorneys' appeal that Basso was not mentally competent was rejected by both state and federal courts before her execution.

The main reason was that her original, court-appointed trial lawyers did nothing to establish her history of mental illness, failing, for example, to call a mitigation specialist to testify about her background during the punishment portion of the trial. Evidence put forward during appeals wasn't accepted over what was concluded at the original trial.

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What we should learn from this execution is that the state of Texas hinders any attempts by death row prisoners to appeal their sentences or stop executions. No one in the state criminal justice system, up to the governor, had the moral integrity to save the life of a woman who was paralyzed and suffering from mental illness.

On the contrary, state officials went out of their way to deny Basso's condition. A doctor for the state examined Basso and claimed to find no evidence of mental illness sufficient to block her execution.

So what are we supposed to say about this description of Basso by the prosecutor in charge of her case in 1999? Colleen Barnett told the media recently that at the original trial, Basso "would pretend to be different things. One setting, she would pretend to be blind. One setting, she would pretend she couldn't walk. One setting, she had the voice of a little girl. I don't know how to describe her."

At a competency hearing, Basso acknowledged that she had lied about her background previously--claiming that she was a triplet, worked in the New York governor's office and had an affair with former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. She then claimed a snake had been smuggled into the prison hospital in an attempt to kill her.

The state of Texas have carried out many questionable executions--Suzanne Basso's is just one more. This is one place where it will require a mass movement to stop the death penalty from being used to take more lives.

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