HOUSTON — Texas’ oldest death row inmate was executed Thursday for killing a Houston police officer nearly 32 years ago during a traffic stop.
An application for a stay of execution was denied by the Supreme Court earlier in the evening, paving the way for Carl Wayne Buntion's execution to be carried out.
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. He was put to death by lethal injection.
Buntion's time of death was 6:39 p.m., according to KHOU 11 News' Grace White. That was 13 minutes after the powerful sedative pentobarbital was injected into him.
KHOU 11's Grace White and Xavier Walton are in Huntsville to cover the execution. Watch for their reports on KHOU 11 News.
“I wanted the Irby family to know one thing: I do have remorse for what I did,” Buntion said while strapped to the Texas death chamber gurney. "I pray to God that they get the closure for me killing their father and Ms. Irby's husband.
“I hope to see you in heaven some day and when you show up I will give you a big hug.”
Buntion, joined by his spiritual adviser, began praying Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd...” as the lethal dose of the powerful sedative pentobarbital began. He took a deep breath, coughed once, then took three less pronounced breaths before all movement stopped.
Several dozen motorcyclists, showing support for the slain motorcycle officer, loudly revved their engines as the execution took place, the roar clearly audible in the death chamber.
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 that Irby pulled over. In 2009, an appeals court vacated Buntion’s sentence, but another jury resentenced him to death three years later.
“I feel joy," the officer's widow, Maura Irby, said after watching Buntion's execution. “I'm sorry someone died. But I didn't think of him as a person. I just thought of him as a thing, as a cancer on the face of my family.”
Before his slaying, James Irby had talked of retirement and spending more time with his two children, who at the time were 1 and 3 years old, Maura Irby, 60, said earlier.
“He was ready to fill out the paperwork and stay home and open a feed store,” she 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.”
Texas prison officials agreed to Buntion’s request to allow his spiritual adviser to pray aloud and touch him while he was put to death.
The adviser, Barry Brown, placed his right hand on Buntion's right ankle in the moments before the drugs began flowing and prayed for about five minutes. He said Buntion no longer was the “hard-headed young man” but had been “humbled by the walls and cold steel of prison.”
While the execution stirred up painful memories for her, Irby said it 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.
“I still miss him, 32 years later,” she said Thursday night.
Here are some updates
7:15 p.m. - James Irby's widow gives a statement after Buntion's execution.
6:50 p.m. - Buntion's last statement was made public.
"Ok to start with I would like to thank everyone that has stayed; Karen, Linda, Barry, Danny, Barbara. God bless each and every one of you. I have a message to the Irby family. The shootout occurred June 27, 1990. One week later a police officer on his day off named Michael Garret showed up to my cell. He was wearing civilian clothes. I thought he was a chaplain. He came to the back where it is a super seg. The guys there began to ridicule him because the officer brought me a small Bible.
"He said boy do you know that you just hit a brick wall? I am a deputy Sheriff. He asked me have you ever been to church. Have you heard of Jesus Christ? I said yes, he then gave me a small Bible which I call a Gideon Bible and read from Romans. The deputy said get right with God. The deputy's buddies, 5 or 6 guys standing in the hallway where making fun on him and the deputy said don't listen to them, listen to my voice. That was July 4, 1990. I wanted the Irby family to know one thing, I do have remorse for what I did. Ms. Irby, the little one year old girl, I can't remember her name, Cody was 3 and she was one when I took their father's life away. I pray to God that they get the closure for me killing their father and Ms. Irby's husband. I hope to see you in heaven some day and when you show up I will give you a big hug. To all of my friend that stuck with me through all of these years I am not going to say good bye, just saying so long. I am ready to go."
6:39 p.m. - Official time of Buntion's death, according to KHOU 11 News reporter Grace White.
6 p.m. - Irby's widow, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg and Houston Police Chief Troy Finner arrive at the Texas Death Chamber.
5:20 p.m. - A large law enforcement presence showed up to offer support to Irby's family members.
4:45 p.m. - The United States Supreme Court denied a stay of execution for Buntion. He's set to be put to death sometime after 6 p.m.
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.”
RELATED: Interview with a death row inmate | Awaiting execution, Carl Wayne Buntion talks to KHOU 11 News
Various state and federal courts 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 argued 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 described Buntion as a geriatric inmate who posed no threat because he suffered from arthritis, vertigo and needed 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.
Interview with death row inmate Carl Wayne Buntion
When Buntion was executed, he became 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 was also 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 was executed.
Interview with widow of James Irby, HPD officer killed during 1990 traffic stop
Maura Irby said she believed Buntion was going to die of old age.
“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 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 the execution will put an end to a painful chapter in their lives.
“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.