Criminal Justice

Texas executes the state’s oldest death row inmate

Carl Wayne Buntion is 78-years-old and on death row for killing a police officer. While some are hoping for closure, others say his execution should be halted due to his age.

This May 27, 2008 file photo, shows an execution chamber in Huntsville, Texas.
Pat Sullivan / Associated Press
This May 27, 2008 file photo, shows an execution chamber in Huntsville, Texas.

Update: 7:02 p.m. on Thursday, April 21

Texas has executed Carl Wayne Buntion, who had been the state's oldest death row inmate.

The 78-year-old died by lethal injection on Thursday for murdering Houston police officer James Irby during a traffic stop in 1990.

Among those who went to Huntsville for the execution included Irby's widow, Maura Irby, HPD Chief Troy Finner, and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.

"I hope this brings some peace to James Irby's family," said Ogg, in a statement.

Efforts to halt Buntion's execution were unsuccessful. That included the U.S. Supreme Court denying his request for a stay hours before his execution.

In a statement included in the high court's order, Justice Stephen Breyer said Buntion's case "illustrates a serious legal and practical problem with the death penalty as it is currently administered."

Buntion had been on death row for more than 30 years, and Breyer noted that most of that time had been in solitary confinement.

"When efforts to administer the death penalty produce results such as this, it raises serious questions about whether that practice complies with the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment," said Breyer.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Buntion's time of death was 6:39 p.m.

He is the first person to be executed in Texas for 2022.

Death row inmate Carl Wayne Buntion
Harris County DA's Office.
Death row inmate Carl Wayne Buntion



Irby's daughter, Cally, was a toddler at the time of her father's death.

"Almost 32 years later ... justice ... if you can call it that," she wrote in a post to Irby on the Officer Down Memorial Page earlier this month. "I would have much rather have had you these last 32 years but I am glad it's going to finally be over. I am not angry anymore and I am choosing not to be sad."

In the post, Cally also said that after the execution she'll be ready to "close the chapter on all this hurt and loss and just finally let go."

"I will never let your memory die," she added. "My son will grow up knowing his grandfather was a hero."

Attempts to halt Buntion's execution

In a recent federal court filing, Buntion's lawyers acknowledged he is responsible for Irby's death and deserves to be punished. However, they still want his execution halted, stating that executing him after "such a long incarceration would violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment."

Efforts to halt his execution failed. Most recently, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously against a 90-day reprieve of execution or commuting Buntion's death sentence to imprisonment for life.

"I truly hope he can live out his remaining days in prison," Kristin Houlé Cuellar, the Executive Director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said before his execution.

While Houlé Cuellar knows his guilt is not in doubt, she told the Texas Newsroom Buntion is a frail, elderly man and should not be executed.

"There are grave concerns about the spectacle about the state executing a 78-year-old man who has numerous serious physical health ailments, who requires specialized care, including the use of a wheelchair to perform basic functions," she added.

However, Houston Police Officers' Union president Douglas Griffith believes Buntion should be executed because "there has to be consequences for your actions."

Houston Police officer James Irby
Officer Down Memorial Page
Houston Police officer James Irby

"If you commit capital murder, that's the only thing you can be put to death for — either killing a police officer, killing multiple people, or killing someone in the commission of an offense," Griffith told the Texas Newsroom. "Those individuals that do that — that pull the trigger and take someone's life — they must pay the ultimate sacrifice. You have to be held accountable for those actions that you make."

Griffith described Irby as a "family man," and said he is hopeful Irby's family will be able to find peace.

"He [Buntion] executed Jim Irby that day, and his [Irby's] wife had to raise two children by herself," said Griffith. "I just hope they can get some closure out of this."

If other attempts to stay his execution fail Thursday, Buntion will be the first death row inmate to be executed in Texas in 2022.

Recent SCOTUS decision's influence on Buntion's execution

Meanwhile, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that a spiritual advisor will be allowed inside the death chamber with Buntion.

Buntion had requested his spiritual advisor "be allowed to touch my body and pray out loud once inside the execution chamber."

According to an email sent from the Texas Attorney General's office last week to Jeffrey Newberry, one of Buntion's lawyers, the spiritual advisor will also be permitted to "pray aloud at a reasonable volume." Singing would also be allowed.

The spiritual advisor would be allowed to stand at the foot of the gurney and touch Buntion's foot as well.

"There is no limit on the timing of that touch," said Edward L. Marshall, the Chief of the Criminal Appeals Division at the Texas AG's office, in the email to Newberry.

Having a spiritual advisor pray aloud and touch death row inmates had been a matter of concern for some inmates, until last month's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case involved another Texas death row inmate, John Ramirez, who had wanted his pastor to pray over him and lay hands on him as he died by lethal injection. In its 8-1 opinion, the nation's high court sided with Ramirez.

TDCJ policy only allows a spiritual advisor inside the death chamber if they don't speak or touch the inmate.

Since the ruling, a spokesperson for the prison agency said requests for spiritual advisors to pray or touch the inmate "will now be reviewed on a case-by-case basis," while its actual policy will not change.