I first met Ernest on February 2, 1995, at Central Prison in Raleigh. Of all my clients, he was the least needy. For one thing, he was sane. Ernest’s problems stemmed from his self-medication of depression with alcohol and drugs. Once he was locked up, he got clean and became a new man. Or, as he might say, Jesus saved him from his evil ways.
Ernest also had a strong support system. He had reconnected with his family, most of whom were quite normal — whatever that means. A family member visited him every week, despite the 90 mile drive and the harsh visiting conditions of a small closet-sized room, with steel stools and a Plexiglas barrier separating visitor from inmate. They had missed only five or six visits over ten years.
Rose was Ernest’s most tireless advocate, laboring since his arrest in 1992 to get needed evidence at every stage of litigation. But her work was largely in vain. Ernest’s trial lawyers did not use any of the records she obtained, nor did they prep the witnesses she secured. On appeal, we had no success in getting a court to listen to the evidence. For us all, the post-conviction process had been a roller-coaster ride of hope and despair, hope and despair, hope and despair.
Now, in November 2002, we clung to one last hope: the Governor could commute Ernest’s death sentence to life without the possibility of parole. We knew this hope was a long shot. Governor Mike Easley was the former Attorney General and had presided over ten executions and had pushed for upholding the death sentence of numerous inmates, including Ernest Basden. In addition, he had just commuted earlier in the year the death sentence of Charlie Alston, who was possibly innocent. What were the chances of a second commutation? Yet, we felt we had an unusually strong case for a life sentence.
First, there were the facts around the crime:
- There were more culpable co-defendants. Sylvia White wanted her husband, Billy, dead. She convinced Lynwood Taylor, Ernest’s nephew, to kill Billy. Together, they devised a plot, but Lynwood, local drug dealer and police informant, did not want to pull the trigger himself.
- As one court described him, Ernest was a manipulated rube, chronically depressed and a heavy user of alcohol and drugs. Lynwood plied Ernest with drugs and alcohol and convinced him to help for a small amount of money.
- Ernest lacked the mental state required by law for a first degree conviction much less the death sentence. On the fatal night, Lynwood tricked Billy into meeting him and drove an intoxicated Ernest to the designated remote plot of land. When Billy arrived, Lynwood introduced himself and then walked away. Ernest got out of the car, picked up a shotgun, and shot Billy twice.
Then, there were the circumstances surrounding the trial and sentencing:
- Lynwood and Sylvia were given more lenient treatment by State officials; both avoided the death penalty. The State permitted Taylor to plead guilty to first-degree murder four years after the crime; he received a sentence of life imprisonment. Similarly, the State allowed Sylvia to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and second-degree murder, four years after the crime. She too received a sentence of life imprisonment, despite the fact that the State had recently convicted her of the 1973 unrelated murder of her four year old stepson (Billy’s son and namesake), who she suffocated with a plastic bag.
- Ernest’s lead trial counsel bowed out shortly before trial because he was dying of leukemia. He had done little work on Ernest’s case, but the court refused to delay the trial. New counsel was completely ineffective, most notably for allowing Ernest to testify for the State in Sylvia White’s baby-killing case without benefit of his testimony.
- Many of the jurors gave affidavits and videotaped interviews that they did not intend for Ernest to actually be executed. They were convinced by the foreman that a death sentence would be overturned. They just wanted to send a strong message of condemnation.
- Ernest was a model prisoner and served as liturgist for death row.
- Ernest had a dedicated family undeserving of the weight of Ernest’s looming execution.
 Basden v. Lee, 290 F.3d 602, 612 (4th Cir. 2002).