The 22nd Execution of 2019
On December 11, 2019, as Texas inmate Travis Runnels, 46, was executed by lethal injection, reported the Washington Post. Runnels first landed in an Amarillo, Tex., prison over two decades ago, after receiving a 70-year sentence for an aggravated robbery in Dallas.
While he was behind bars, court documents
say, he grew angry and dissatisfied about his job as the janitor at an in-house boot factory, which made shoes for Texas prisoners. He had requested a work transfer to the prison’s barber shop but hadn’t received it.
On Jan. 29, 2003, before starting his shift, Runnels expressed his dissatisfaction to three other inmates, making violent threats about the plant manager, Stanley Wiley.
Once he arrived at the factory, Runnels went up to Wiley, tilted the man’s head back and slit his throat with a knife. The wound, spanning about nine inches, was so deep it had cut Wiley’s spine — and would later kill him.
Runnels wiped the knife clean with a white rag and walked away.
It was hardly a question whether Runnels, the ninth
and final Texas inmate executed on death row this year, had committed a murder.
Over a decade ago, the Dallas native pleaded guilty in the 2003 killing of his
former prison supervisor, reported the Washington Post.
But things got far more complicated when it came to one of
the witnesses in Runnels’s trial. The man’s attorneys charged that a state
investigator, A.P. Merillat, had given false testimony. Prosecutors never
denied that claim, and even Merillat recently suggested
he may have erred.
Yet the question of whether his testimony made a difference
in the verdict — and thus, between Runnels’s life and a life sentence — became
central to a legal battle that rose all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court this
“You shouldn’t be allowed to get a death sentence based on
false testimony,” his attorney, Mark Pickett, recently told the Texas Tribune
. “This is testimony that … no one is
disputing is false.”
Prosecutors, however, argued that even if Merillat had
misled jurors, it wouldn’t have made a difference in the verdict. They say that
Runnels, who had a record of other assaults against prison guards, was too
dangerous and would have been sentenced to death anyway.
Though he knew the state wanted to sentence him to death,
Runnels pleaded guilty. So the question at his trial was not one of innocence.
It was whether he could coexist with others during a life in prison or whether
he posed such a “future danger” — to guards, inmates, and the public — that he
should head to death row instead.
To answer that question, prosecutors called on A.P.
Merillat. Then a state official
who investigated prison crimes,
Merillat had often been called on to testify about the harm caused by dangerous
At the 2005 trial, he appeared to do just that. He told
jurors that inmates like Runnels could not be held securely, even if they were
sentenced to life in prison without parole. He said that if those convicted of
capital murder — like Runnels — were not sentenced to death, they would
automatically be placed in dorms or cells alongside other inmates, without much
supervision or consideration of their full records. But that perspective went
against changes made months earlier to the Texas Department of Criminal
Justice’s classification plan, which stated that capital murder convicts
sentenced to life in prison would be placed at a stricter level of security.
Runnels’s attorneys said
his testimony was “plainly and patently false.”
One former prison official would later tell
Texas Monthly that it was “bulls---.” And in
interviews with Texas news outlets
, even Merillat acknowledged he might have been
wrong in Amarillo.
The jury voted to put Runnels on death row. The ruling
triggered more than a decade of legal disputes about the trial, much of it
centered on Merillat’s testimony: Had that falsehood contributed to the
punishment beyond a reasonable doubt?
His attorneys argued it had. The purpose of Merillat’s
testimony, they said, was to establish that security for prisoners not on death
row was “so lax” that Runnels would be a danger to others there, they wrote
in a petition
The sentences of two death row inmates, in 2010
, had been overturned after the Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals ruled that Merillat gave jurors false information, they said, and
Runnels had also received shoddy representation.
“Travis, just like anybody in this country, deserves a trial
where people aren’t lying,” Pickett told the Houston Chronicle
. “No matter what you did, what
the jury should be hearing is the truth.”
Yet prosecutors said that Runnels’s crime — and his
subsequent behavior in prison — was enough to make him a future threat in
prison and merit a death sentence, with or without Merillat’s testimony. After
killing Wiley, they said, Runnels threw feces and a lightbulb at other prison
“The jury would undoubtedly have found Runnels to
be a future danger,” Jefferson Clendenin, Texas assistant attorney general,
wrote in a brief
to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.
The case made its way through Texas courts, which repeatedly
rejected his appeals. Runnels’s supporters argued that he had changed,
following years on death row, but the prisoner’s options grew few and far
between. Amid a rising wave of scrutiny, Merillat chimed in too.
“If the jury gave him the death penalty because of his
particular crime and the heinousness of it and the actions he committed after
his crime … then the jury’s verdict should stand,” he told the Tribune. “If
they gave him the death penalty because of what I said and I was wrong, I don’t
want him to have the death penalty.”
Late on Wednesday afternoon, though, U.S. Supreme Court
to block Runnels’s execution.
Less than an hour later, he was injected with a lethal dose
of a sedative, while strapped into a death chamber gurney in Huntsville, Tex.
Outside the prison, about 70 miles north of Houston, several
hundred Texas corrections officers stood in formation, KTVT reported
, hugging or shaking the hand of Wiley’s
sister and brother-in-law.
Inside, Runnels declined his chance to say any final words.
Instead, he smiled and mouthed a kiss toward his friends and attorneys.
By 7:26 p.m., after four quick breaths, he was dead.