The State of Texas carried out the final execution of the year last night, December 11, 2019. Travis Runnels was sentenced to death in 2005 for killing Stanley Wiley, a correctional officer at the Clements Unit where Runnels was an inmate. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider his final appeal regarding the false testimony of one of the state’s witnesses at his trial. Read more from the Texas Tribune.
Runnels accepted responsibility for his actions right away and pled guilty to capital murder. During the punishment phase of his trial, however, his trial attorney failed to call a single witness or present any evidence on his behalf, despite the existence of extensive and compelling mitigation that could have provided the jury with a reason why his life should be spared.
This failure was compounded by the State’s presentation of prison classification “expert” A.P. Merillat, who provided the jury with a patently false description of what Runnels’ life would look like if he were sentenced to life rather than death. Merillat described a prison environment that would allow Runnels access to both correctional staff and other inmates. His false testimony misled jurors into believing Runnels would essentially be a free man within the confines of the prison if they sentenced him to life, and therefore the only way to prevent him from causing future violence was to send him to death row. In fact, the prison classification guidelines required strict conditions of confinement for individuals convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison.
According to an enlightening piece published this week by Texas Monthly, “Who Gets to Live and Die When the State Relies on False Testimony in Death Penalty Cases?,” Merillat offered similar testimony in at least fifteen other death penalty cases. In two of those cases, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered new punishment hearings; both individuals were eventually removed from death row.
Last week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Runnels’ appeal without comment or consideration of its merits. His attorneys filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. They asked the Justices to recognize that it is a due process violation when the prosecution uses false expert testimony to obtain a death sentence, regardless of whether the prosecution knew it was false. The Court declined to consider the appeal and denied Runnels’ application for a stay of execution
In 2019, the State of Texas accounted for 9 of the 22 executions nationwide. Twelve other Texas execution dates were withdrawn or stayed by state or federal courts. There currently are seven individuals with execution dates in 2020.