HOUSTON—Texas’ oldest death row inmate faces execution Thursday for killing a Houston police officer nearly 32 years ago during a traffic stop.
Carl Wayne Buntion, 78, was sentenced to death for the June 1990 fatal shooting of Houston police officer James Irby, a nearly 20-year member of the force.
Buntion had been on parole for just six weeks when he shot the 37-year-old Irby. Buntion, who had an extensive criminal record, was a passenger in the car Irby pulled over. In 2009, an appeals court vacated Buntion’s sentence, but another jury resentenced him to death three years later.
Before his death, James Irby had talked of retirement and spending more time with his two children, who were 1 and 3 years old at the time, said his wife, Maura Irby.
“He was ready to fill out the paperwork and stay home and open a feed store,” Maura Irby, 60, said. “He wanted to be the dad that was there to go to all the ballgames and the father-daughter dances. He was a super guy, the love of my life.”
Various state and federal courts have turned down appeals by Buntion’s lawyers to stop his execution. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on Tuesday rejected his clemency request.
Buntion’s attorneys say he is responsible for Irby’s death and “deserved to be punished severely for that crime.”
But they argue his execution would be unconstitutional because the jury’s finding he would be a future danger to society—one of the reasons he was sentenced to death—has proven incorrect. Also, they said, his execution would serve no legitimate purpose because so much time has passed since his conviction. His attorneys describe Buntion as a geriatric inmate who poses no threat as he suffers from arthritis, vertigo, and needs a wheelchair.
“This delay of three decades undermines the rationale for the death penalty ... Whatever deterrent effect there is diminished by delay,” his attorneys David Dow and Jeffrey Newberry, wrote in court documents.
If Buntion is executed, he would become the oldest person Texas has put to death since the Supreme Court lifted its ban on capital punishment in 1976. The oldest inmate executed in the U.S. in modern times was Walter Moody Jr., who was 83 years old when he was put to death in Alabama in 2018.
Buntion would also be the first inmate executed in Texas in 2022. Although Texas has been the nation’s busiest capital punishment state, it’s been nearly seven months since it carried out an execution. There have been only three executions in each of the last two years, due in part to the pandemic and delays over Texas’ refusal to allow spiritual advisers to touch inmates and pray aloud in the death chamber.
In March, the U.S. Supreme Court said states must accommodate such requests, and Texas prison officials have agreed to allow Buntion's spiritual adviser to pray aloud and touch him while he is being executed.
Maura Irby said she had believed Buntion would die of old age on death row.
“I had stuffed so much of it away in a big trunk and shut the lid on it in my mind, in my heart because I didn’t think anything was really going to come of it,” Irby said.
While the pending execution has stirred up painful memories for her, Irby said it has also reminded her of her advocacy work in public safety after her husband’s death, including helping put together legislation that allowed victim impact statements at trials.
Irby said she and her two children are hoping with the execution, a painful chapter in their lives can finally come to an end.
“So, I hope Jimmy will finally rest in peace and then we can all kind of breathe a sigh of relief and just keep him in our prayers now and in our hearts,” Irby said.