Did a Dubious Confession Sway a Medical Examiner’s Autopsy in a Texas Death Penalty Case?

Texas will soon execute a man based on the conclusions of a forensic pathologist with a troubling history.

Johner Bildbyra AB+46 8 644 83 30info@johner.sesales@johner.se
Sanitized instruments for an autopsy. Photo: Elliot Elliot/Johner Images/Corbis

WHEN HE HADN’T HEARD from his best friend, Darin Shane Honeycutt, by Saturday morning, January 27, 2001, Larry Brown was worried. Brown knew that Honeycutt often went to Houston’s gay bars dressed as a woman named Brandy Houston, and that he’d intended to do so that previous Thursday night — that was the last Brown had heard from him. On Saturday he went to Honeycutt’s apartment and asked the landlord to let him in. Inside, his fears were realized: Honeycutt was dead. Lying naked in his bedroom, Honeycutt was upside down with his legs still on the bed and his head face down on the floor. There was no sign of forced entry and the place hadn’t been ransacked — only one drawer of a jewelry cabinet was out of place, though nothing appeared to have been taken. Honeycutt’s ID and his red Ford Escort were missing.

The next day, a Houston man named Richard Masterson went to his brother’s workplace looking to borrow some money. His brother wasn’t there, but the boss, Morgan Potter, was. Masterson was acting edgy and made an opaque admission: “I think I put someone to sleep,” Potter, in court testimony, would recall him saying. Potter had once heard Masterson say that he knew how to perform a sleeper hold; he figured that’s what Masterson was talking about. But Masterson allegedly told him no, it was “more than that.” Masterson said he planned to drive to Georgia. Potter bought Masterson some gas and Masterson drove off — in a red Ford Escort. Afterward, Potter heard about Honeycutt’s death. He called the police.

Days later, Masterson confessed to Houston police that he’d killed Honeycutt by strangling him in a sleeper hold. After a two-day trial in 2002, Masterson was found guilty of murder; a day later he was sentenced to death. This Wednesday, January 20, Texas plans to execute him by lethal injection — the state’s first execution of 2016.


Richard Masterson

Photo: theforgivenessfoundation.org
But today Masterson claims he is an innocent man. At trial, he recanted his confession, testifying that although he was with Honeycutt the night of his death, he had died during a consensual sexual encounter — and Masterson panicked, fleeing in Honeycutt’s car. Jurors were unconvinced, however, relying in large part on the testimony of Texas medical examiner Paul Shrode, who conducted the autopsy on Honeycutt and provided the critical evidence that Masterson was guilty of murder: Blood spots known as petechiae, caused by ruptured capillaries, had been found around Honeycutt’s eyes. Shrode said this was an indication of death by strangulation.

Yet there is evidence to suggest that Honeycutt was not murdered, but instead may have died from a sudden heart attack during sex that included erotic asphyxiation. Masterson’s lawyer, Washington, D.C.-based attorney Gregory Gardner, believes that Shrode’s analysis was skewed by his knowledge of the confession. Although Shrode conducted Honeycutt’s autopsy on January 28, 2001, before Masterson was interviewed by police, he did not complete his autopsy report until February 23, well after Masterson made his confession. “It seems like primarily he reached his medical conclusion [based] on Richard’s confession and then got some anecdotal evidence to back it up,” Gardner told The Intercept. In the meantime, Gardner said, Shrode ignored evidence suggesting the death was accidental and “missed some very basic medical principles in this autopsy — and [in] other ones too.”

Indeed, since Masterson’s conviction, serious questions about Shrode’s qualifications and credibility have come to light. Shrode has drawn inaccurate conclusions about the cause of death in at least two different cases — including a death penalty case. In 2001, just months before Masterson’s trial, Shrode was officially reprimanded by his supervisor in the Houston medical examiner’s office for reaching an erroneous cause of death determination. Although they should have, prosecutors did not disclose the reprimand to Masterson’s trial counsel during the evidence discovery process. Later, in 2010, Shrode was fired from his job as El Paso’s medical examiner after officials found that he’d reached an erroneous cause of death determination in a capital case out of Ohio — a revelation that led to the commutation of the inmate’s death sentence. In addition to these grave errors, Shrode has also had issues with his résumé, once insisting during an El Paso court hearing that he had earned a “graduate law degree” at a Texas university that did not have a law program. (Shrode has never faced any state sanctions for his mistakes or alleged credibility issues. In the wake of his termination in El Paso, the Texas Medical Board dismissed a formal complaint about his work, finding in part there was “sufficient evidence” that Shrode was qualified “for the position of medical examiner.”)

While a flawed forensic examination doesn’t necessarily mean that Masterson is innocent, it should, at least, trigger a detailed and competent review — particularly in a death penalty case. Still, even though questions about the reliability of certain forensic examinations have troubled criminal justice practitioners for a number of years, courts often seem reluctant to acknowledge the extent to which forensic errors contribute to wrongful convictions — and even to wrongful executions.

With his execution scheduled for tomorrow, Masterson is running out of time and options. Gardner last week sought to file a second writ in federal court, a bid that the notoriously conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied on January 15. He is currently preparing for his Hail Mary pass: asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the execution and order a hearing on the Shrode-related evidence. Unless that succeeds, Masterson will be executed on Wednesday, the first of nine inmates slated for the Texas gurney through early June.

371489 09: The holding cells for inmates awaiting execution in the Texas death chamber June 23, 2000 in Huntsville, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

Holding cells for inmates awaiting execution in the Texas death chamber in Huntsville, Texas, June 23, 2000.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

BY THE TIME HOUSTON police received the call from Potter and alerted Georgia cops to be on the lookout for a red Escort, Masterson had already made his way to Florida. There, he was arrested and jailed for assault — an attack that had disturbing similarities to Honeycutt’s case. Masterson had a chronic drug problem dating back to his teens, which Gardner traces to his traumatic childhood — he’d been abandoned and abused — and in jail, Masterson went into serious withdrawal, becoming suicidal. In Texas, not long after Honeycutt’s death, Masterson had called the cops to say that he hadn’t killed him. But now, jailed in Florida, he called them again, this time saying they should come talk to him. Police quickly made their way there. After an initial interview roughly an hour long — an interrogation that was not recorded — the investigators recorded a second interview, during which Masterson confessed to the crime. He hadn’t gone home with Honeycutt in order to have sex, Masterson said. He intended to kill the man.

Gardner says Masterson’s logic was suicidal: If he confessed to a death-eligible offense — murder in the course of robbery — he would quickly be sent to die. It was a brain chemistry problem, Gardner says — the inability to produce dopamine (a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers) caused by years of drug abuse — that motivated Masterson’s confession.

But at trial, Masterson’s recanted confession was undermined by ample evidence that he was no saint — he had a history of violence that prosecutors brought out in detail. He’d once thrown a bottle at his cousin, knocking out some of her teeth; he’d beaten up a girlfriend; he’d been convicted once for burglary and once for theft.

The assault that landed him in jail in Florida was particularly damning. In that case, he met a man in a gay bar and went home with him after closing. He attacked the man at his residence, straddling him and choking him with both hands until the man passed out. Masterson then stole his car; he was picked up by Florida police who spotted the stolen Toyota in a trailer park.

But despite the obvious parallels, there were key differences between the attack in Florida and Honeycutt’s alleged murder. In Florida, Masterson’s victim had “severe bruises around his throat, he lost his voice for a few days, and the blood vessels in his eyes were broken,” the Texas attorney general’s office wrote in a 2010 court filing. In Honeycutt’s case, there were no bruises or signs of trauma found anywhere on his neck — not on the surface or in the internal musculature. In fact, apart from the burst capillaries around Honeycutt’s eyes, there was no real trauma to the body at all. (Although Shrode testified that he found some bruising on Honeycutt’s left knuckles — presumably consistent with fighting off an attack — there was no mention of this in the autopsy report, nor was any supporting photographic evidence introduced at trial.)

While Shrode did note that Honeycutt had a 90 percent blockage of one artery in his heart, he nonetheless testified that it was not possible that Honeycutt had died of heart failure due to erotic asphyxiation. Honeycutt still had “collateral” blood flow through his other arteries, Shrode said — and besides, in cases of erotic asphyxiation, a person usually releases his grip on his partner’s neck after the person passes out. The fact that Honeycutt died during the encounter, Shrode’s logic went, meant that Masterson hadn’t released his grip — so it couldn’t have been erotic asphyxiation.

At trial, there was no defense witness to challenge Shrode’s conclusions. Although Masterson’s attorneys consulted with a forensic pathologist beforehand to aid their cross-examination of Shrode, they failed to call an expert of their own.

Had Masterson’s lawyers presented such an expert, he or she could have pointed out problems with Shrode’s testimony. According to Florida pathologist Dr. Christena Roberts, who reviewed Shrode’s work for Masterson’s most recent appeals, Shrode’s autopsy was incomplete and his conclusions unsupported by evidence. Roberts concluded that Honeycutt had “severe coronary artery disease,” which certainly could have caused his death during a sexual encounter. But Shrode failed to take any tissue samples from Honeycutt’s heart, making further examination impossible. Roberts also noted that the petechiae found around Honeycutt’s eyes could easily be the result of lividity (blood pooling) after death, as Honeycutt’s blood settled to the lowest part of his body — his face. Instead, on the stand, Shrode attributed this to strangulation. In the end, Roberts was clearly skeptical of Shrode: The petechiae Shrode found could, at best, be “‘supportive’ of but not ‘diagnostic’” of strangulation, she wrote in her report. “The pathologist appears to have relied on the ‘confession’ and not any independent scientific observation.”

Some of the tools used to perform an autopsy.

Tools used to perform an autopsy.

Photo: Joel P. Lugavere/LA Times/Getty Images

THE ALLEGATIONS AGAINST Shrode are not entirely unique. Questions about how forensic pathologists are trained and monitored are an ongoing issue in forensic science. In the groundbreaking 2009 report from the National Academies of Sciences on the state of forensic sciences, the authors noted that the nation’s system of death investigation is a mishmash of varied expertise and that, as a whole, the system is underfunded, suffers from a lack of standardized practices and procedures, and is seriously understaffed — among other deficiencies. “It is clear that death investigations in the United States rely on a patchwork of coroners and medical examiners and that these vary greatly in the budgets, staff, equipment, and training available to them, and in the quality of services they provide,” reads the report. “If the death investigation does not include competent death investigation and forensic pathology services, both civil and criminal cases may be compromised.”

But even qualified forensic experts are no guarantee when defense attorneys drop the ball. For his state habeas writ, Masterson’s then-attorney, J. Sidney Crowley, did consult with a forensic expert — but it was a “half-laid effort,” said Gardner. The expert, Dr. Paul Radelat, wrote in an affidavit that Honeycutt could have died of a heart attack while involved in erotic asphyxiation and that Masterson simply didn’t notice the attack and therefore didn’t release his grip in time to save Honeycutt’s life. But Gardner says that Crowley never reviewed the entire court record related to Masterson’s case, nor did he uncover any of Shrode’s professional problems. As a result, Crowley didn’t know that he should have Radelat conduct a ground-up review of Shrode’s work and conclusions. Crowley, Gardner said, should have said, “You really need to review everything this guy did.” If he had, Garner believes, Masterson’s situation would be “a completely different ballgame.”

Regardless, to the state of Texas, Shrode is little more than a distraction. In a response to Masterson’s most recent state court filing highlighting Shrode’s dubious work, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Lori DeAngelo wrote that the defense is relying “on previous professional issues … which are wholly unrelated” to Masterson’s case and which “do not constitute a basis for habeas relief.” Indeed, she wrote, two other death row inmates have raised Shrode’s work as an issue in their writs but have been denied by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. On January 11, the same court also dismissed Masterson’s latest appeal.

Shrode could not be reached for comment.

As Gardner tries to save his client’s life, he is once again raising the issue of Shrode’s erroneous testimony. But whereas Masterson’s previous appeals argued that his attorneys — both at trial and on his first writ — were ineffective for not challenging Shrode, this time, Gardner says, it’s not about bad lawyering, but about innocence. “Richard is not a monster. He is not a sociopath. He is not even a murderer,” Gardner wrote in a petition seeking clemency for Masterson. On Friday, Texas’ Board of Pardons and Paroles denied the application.

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