Lawyers are seeking a new trial for a Houston man scheduled to be executed Jan. 20, arguing that their client’s conviction for strangling a female impersonator was based on a botched autopsy and a questionable confession.
Richard Masterson, 42, was convicted of the Feb. 9, 2001, strangulation of Darrin Honeycutt, 35. Masterson has contended that Honeycutt died accidentally while they engaged in sex, but prosecutors successfully argued that the two-time burglar killed Honeycutt and stole his car.
In an appeal filed this week, lawyers Pat McCann and Mandy Miller argued that former Harris County assistant medical examiner Dr. Paul Shrode wrongly classified Honeycutt’s death as a homicide. In attributing death to strangulation, they contend, the pathologist gave short shrift to indications that deadly pressure had not been applied to the victim’s neck.
In a review of Shrode’s work submitted with the appeal, Florida pathologist Dr. Christina Roberts found the victim’s thyroid cartilage and a neck bone were intact; there was no discoloration of soft tissue in the neck. Additionally, she noted, Shrode failed to appreciate the significance of a 90 percent blockage of a coronary artery, which, she wrote, could have resulted in a fatal heart attack.
“The pathologist,” Roberts wrote, “appears to have relied on the confession and not independent scientific observation.”
‘Never had a chance’
McCann and Miller also questioned the reliability of their client’s confession, taken by Houston police after Masterson was apprehended in Florida.
The lawyers submitted an affidavit from Masterson’s sister asserting that, as a child, Masterson repeatedly was beaten on the head by his drunken father. Also submitted was a statement by Dr. Wilkie Wilson, a Duke University neuropharmacologist, stating that adolescent drug use can lead to changes in the brain and that sudden withdrawal from narcotics can generate severe depression.
Masterson’s lawyers contend that their client abused alcohol, methamphetamine and cocaine from an early age and probably was profoundly depressed when he confessed, raising questions about the reliability of his statement.
Masterson “never had a chance,” McCann said. “He literally had his head caved in by his own father when he was a toddler. He was destroying his mind to escape the physical and sexual abuse of his family when he was a teen. This report by our pathologist makes the state’s case, well, the state’s case is built on a lie and lazy work.”
Lynn Hardaway, chief of the Harris County district attorney’s post-conviction writ division, said Wednesday it was too soon for her to comment on the appeal.
McCann and Miller argue that Honeycutt’s death occurred after the men had engaged in “erotic asphyxiation” during sex. When he discovered Honeycutt had died, Masterson fled, worried about the impact of previous convictions for burglary in Georgia and Texas. In her autopsy review, Roberts said that stress on Honeycutt’s impaired heart generated by sexual play could have caused his death.
Masterson’s lawyers devoted a substantial portion of their appeal to questioning the reliability of Shrode’s autopsy and courtroom testimony. Shrode worked for the Harris County medical examiner’s office from 1997 to 2004.
McCann and Miller presented an official document from Shrode’s supervisor noting that he had misdiagnosed the cause of death in a previous case. They also provided evidence of previous problems in Shrode’s career: In Ohio, for example, a death sentence was reduced to life in prison after the pathologist’s boss testified that Shrode’s testimony had no scientific basis.
In 2010, Shrode lost his job as El Paso’s chief medical examiner after officials concluded he had falsified his résumé.
In January 2014, Shrode’s performance as a pathologist was cited in an appeal for capital killer Suzanne Basso, condemned for fatally beating a mentally challenged man. Despite assertions that the doctor’s testimony in that case was unreliable, the bid for a stay was denied and, on Feb. 4, Basso was executed.
In denying an earlier appeal from Masterson, judges of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the killer has been his own worst enemy.
“Masterson’s counsel faced an uphill battle in trying to save his life because Masterson, against their advice, insisted on testifying and then told the jury he was a future danger and that there was nothing to mitigate his offense,” the judges wrote.
The question of an inmate’s future dangerousness is one of two special issues jurors must consider before handing down a death sentence.