Ernest Basden was convicted of shooting and killing an insurance salesman, Billy White, in rural Eastern North Carolina in 1993. The plot of the story is like a poor man’s soap opera. Billy’s wife, Sylvia, wanted her husband dead. After failing to accomplish this goal herself using poisoned berries, Sylvia talked Lynwood Taylor into killing her husband.
Lynwood knew how the system worked; a small-town drug dealer himself, he was an active police informant. He knew better than to do the deed himself. After
asking around town for a partner in crime, he turned to his nephew, Ernest, who was renting a room from Lynwood’s mother, Ernest’s aunt. Ernest was down on his luck, chronically depressed and apt to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. Lynwood provided Ernest with the needed drugs and alcohol, and after initially resisting, Ernest was convinced to help kill Billy.
Lynwood and Sylvia devised a plot. Under false pretenses, Lynwood arranged for Billy to meet him at a deserted plot of land late at night. Lynwood plied Ernest with alcohol and drove him to the designated spot, where they waited in the dark. When Billy arrived, Lynwood introduced himself and then excused himself. Ernest got out of the car, picked up a shotgun, and shot Billy twice.
It did not take long for this tale to come to light. Lynwood and Sylvia were arrested. Ernest turned himself in.
Of the three, Ernest was tried first. He was sentenced to death on Good Friday, April 9, 1993. Sylvia and Lynwood Taylor both avoided death sentences. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was troubled that Ernest, “an intoxicated, manipulated rube,” was the only one to get a death sentence:
Moreover, notwithstanding (or indeed perhaps because of) the greater cunning of Taylor and Sylvia White, they have been treated much more leniently than Basden. The State did not bring Taylor to trial until four years after Billy White’s murder, and then permitted Taylor to plead guilty to first-degree murder; he received a sentence of life imprisonment. Similarly, the State did not seek to try Sylvia White for almost four years after the murder of her husband and then allowed her to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and second-degree murder; she too received a sentence of life imprisonment. Prior to that conviction, the State tried and convicted Sylvia White for the 1973 unrelated murder of her stepson (Billy White’s son and namesake) whom she suffocated with a plastic bag when he was four years old; the State did not seek the death penalty for that murder and White received a life sentence for that crime too. [See Basden v. Lee, 290 F.3d 602 (4th Cir. 2002).]
According to one prosecutor, Taylor was given leniency in his sentence for Billy White’s murder because he helped the state win a conviction against Sylvia in the stepson’s case. The problem with this excuse is that Ernest’s testimony against Sylvia was equally if not more critical to the conviction. In any case, Ernest’s attorney sought no favorable treatment, and Ernest received none.
There were other serious flaws with Ernest’s death sentence. Ernest’s trial attorney had to withdraw from the case when he was stricken with cancer; the new lawyer was given only six weeks to prepare for trial. The trial was a disaster, most notably when the lawyers put Ernest on the stand, to no good end.
When the post-conviction team contacted the jurors, all but one stated that he (or she) never intended that Ernest be executed. That one juror, then deceased, had told his fellow jurors that he “knew” first-hand that death sentences were overturned on appeal and that Ernest would get another trial and never be executed. The jurors were sufficiently convinced and gambled with a death sentence. They — and Ernest — lost.