HOUSTON - Carl Wayne Buntion, a convicted killer on death row who gunned down a Houston police officer nearly 20 years ago, is getting a new punishment trial after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Wednesday his trial jury received an improper instruction when it decided he should be put to death.
"This is a tremendously hard day with my son on the streets following in his father's footsteps," said the slain officer's widow, Maura Irby.
Carl Wayne Buntion, 65, has been on death row since 1991 for the shooting death of James Irby, 37, a Houston motorcycle officer who pulled over a car in which Buntion was a passenger.
"I remember one of my partners coming up and saying Jim's shot and he's shot bad," said Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officer's Union
The appeals court said instructions given to jurors deliberating whether he should get the death penalty did not have a proper way to "to give meaningful consideration" to evidence Buntion had a troubled childhood, was mistreated by an alcoholic father and had run away from home to work on a dairy farm because his family was poor. Evidence also showed Buntion suffered from a paranoid personality disorder, depression and a mild brain dysfunction.
Buntion had been on parole only six weeks at the time of the June 1990 shooting, serving only 13 months of a 15-year sentence for sexual assault of a child. It was the latest of about a dozen convictions over nearly 30 years for Buntion, who first went to prison when he was 17.
His case prompted a public outcry about the parole system in Texas and crowding in state prisons that required court-mandated inmate releases. Because of all the publicity, Buntion's trial was moved from Houston to Gillespie County, about 200 miles to the west.
Irby, an 18-year officer in Houston, was shot in the head and back as he talked to the driver of the car. Buntion had tried to get out of the car and leave and was ordered to return by the officer. Witnesses in another car saw the shooting and screamed and Buntion opened fire on them, injuring them. He fled on foot, tried to steal a car and eventually turned himself in to police.
Buntion said the shooting was in self-defense.
Last year, a federal appeals court reversed a lower federal judge's ruling that overturned Buntion's conviction. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt had ruled Buntion's trial judge was biased against Buntion and had deprived Buntion of his constitutional right to a fair trial.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals criticized State District Judge Bill Harmon for lapses in judicial temperament but said his actions at the trial didn't amount to bias. The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct subsequently publicly reprimanded Harmon for his conduct in the case.
The Court of Criminal Appeals, in brief orders Wednesday, also refused appeals from three other condemned inmates: Ruben Ramirez Cardenas, Sheldon Aaron Ward and David Lee Powell.
Cardenas, 39, a Mexican native, was convicted of the rape-slaying of a 16-year-old girl abducted from Edinburg in Hidalgo County in 1997.
Ward, 30, of Haltom City, was convicted of the rape-slaying of a woman in Fort Worth in 2002.
Powell, 58, was convicted of using an assault rifle to kill an Austin police officer during a traffic stop in 1978.