Texas’s oldest death row inmate was executed Thursday for murdering a Houston police officer nearly 32 years ago during a traffic stop.
Carl Wayne Buntion, 78, was hanged at the Huntsville state penitentiary. He was convicted of the fatal shooting in June 1990 of Houston police officer James Irby, a nearly two-decade veteran of the force.
The Supreme Court of the United States had previously denied a request by Buntion’s attorneys to stay his execution.
“I wanted the Irby family to understand one thing: I am truly sorry for what I did,” Buntion said as he was strapped to the Texas death chamber gurney. “I pray to God that they receive closure for my father’s and Ms. Irby’s husband’s murders. I hope to see you in heaven at some point, and when I do, I will greet you with a big hug.”
Buntion began praying Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd…” with the assistance of his spiritual adviser as the lethal dose of the powerful sedative pentobarbital began. He inhaled deeply, coughed once, and then took three less noticeable breaths before all movement came to a halt.
He was pronounced dead 13 minutes later at 6:39 p.m.
Several dozen motorcyclists revved their engines loudly during the execution, the roar clearly audible in the death chamber.
Buntion had been on parole for less than six weeks when he shot Irby, 37. Buntion, who possessed a lengthy criminal record, was a passenger in the vehicle that Irby stopped. Buntion’s sentence was vacated by an appeals court in 2009, but he was resentenced to death three years later by another jury.
“I feel joy,” Maura Irby, the officer’s widow, said after witnessing Buntion’s execution. “I’m sorry for the loss of someone. However, I did not consider him a person. I simply thought of him as a thing, as a cancer on my family’s face.”
Prior to his assassination, James Irby discussed retiring and spending more time with his two children, who were 1 and 3 years old at the time, Maura Irby, 60, previously stated.
“He was prepared to complete the paperwork and remain at home to open a feed store,” she explained. “He desired to be the father who attended all of the ballgames and father-daughter dances. He was an exceptional gentleman and the love of my life.”
Various state and federal courts had also denied Buntion’s lawyers’ appeals to vacate his death sentence in the months preceding his execution. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied his clemency request on Tuesday.
Buntion’s attorneys asserted that he was accountable for Irby’s death and “deserved to be severely punished for that crime.”
However, they contended that his execution was unconstitutional because the jury’s determination that he would pose a future danger to society – one of the reasons he was sentenced to death – was incorrect, and also because his execution would serve no legitimate purpose given the passage of time since his conviction. Buntion was described by his attorneys as a geriatric inmate who posed no threat due to his arthritis, vertigo, and need for a wheelchair ” This three-decade delay undercuts the death penalty’s rationale, as any deterrent effect is diminished by delay “In court documents, his attorneys David Dow and Jeffrey Newberry stated.
Buntion’s execution made him the oldest person executed in Texas since the Supreme Court lifted the state’s moratorium on capital punishment in 1976. Walter Moody Jr., who was 83 years old when he was executed in Alabama in 2018, was the oldest inmate executed in the United States in modern times.
Buntion was also the state of Texas’s first inmate to be executed in 2022. Although Texas has been the nation’s busiest capital punishment state, it had not carried out an execution in nearly seven months. Each of the last two years has seen only three executions, owing in part to the coronavirus pandemic and delays caused by legal challenges to Texas’ refusal to allow spiritual advisers to touch inmates and pray aloud in the death chamber.
The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in March that states must accommodate requests for faith leaders to pray and touch inmates during executions.
As Texas prepared to execute Buntion, Tennessee officials canceled an execution scheduled for Thursday. It would have been the state’s first execution since the pandemic began. Oscar Smith, 72, was sentenced to death for assassinating his estranged wife and her teenage sons in 1989. Republican Gov. Bill Lee declined to elaborate on what prompted the 11th-hour halt to the scheduled execution.
Buntion’s request for his spiritual adviser to pray aloud and touch him during his execution was granted by Texas prison officials.
In the moments before the drugs began to flow, the adviser, Barry Brown, placed his right hand on Buntion’s right ankle and prayed for approximately five minutes. He stated that Buntion was no longer the “brave young man” but had been “humbled by the prison walls and cold steel.”
While the execution brought back painful memories for Irby, she added that it also reminded her of her advocacy work in public safety following her husband’s death, which included assisting in the passage of legislation allowing victim impact statements during trials.
“32 years later, I still miss him,” she said Thursday night.