Texas executed an inmate for a prison murder. His lawyers said false testimony put him on death row

Travis Runnels was sentenced to death for the 2003 murder of prison employee Stanley Wiley

Published December 17, 2019 6:30AM (EST)

FILE - This Oct. 9, 2014, file photo shows the gurney in the the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. An Oklahoma grand jury investigating the state’s execution procedures said Thursday, May 19, 2016 that a top lawyer for Gov. Mary Fallin encouraged the use of the wrong lethal injection drug in an execution that was later called off. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File) (AP)
FILE - This Oct. 9, 2014, file photo shows the gurney in the the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. An Oklahoma grand jury investigating the state’s execution procedures said Thursday, May 19, 2016 that a top lawyer for Gov. Mary Fallin encouraged the use of the wrong lethal injection drug in an execution that was later called off. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File) (AP)

This article originally appeared on The Texas Tribune.

Texas officials didn't dispute that prosecutors introduced false testimony at Travis Runnels’ 2005 capital murder trial in Amarillo. Instead, they argued the state should still execute him even if they did.

On Wednesday evening, Texas did just that, putting to death Runnels in the state’s execution chamber in Huntsville. The 46-year-old man was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital at 7:04 p.m. while lying on a gurney and was pronounced dead 22 minutes later. He had three friends standing in an adjacent viewing room, and the sister and brother-in-law of the prison employee he killed stood in another room, according to a prison witness list.

He gave no final statement, according to a prison spokesperson.

There was no question of Runnels’ guilt in the 2003 prison murder of Stanley Wiley, a supervisor at the Clement Unit’s boot factory, where Runnels worked while serving a 70-year aggravated robbery sentence. He pleaded guilty at trial, despite knowing the state was seeking the death penalty.

But at his punishment hearing, where jurors in part weigh how likely a capital murder convict is to be dangerous in the future, the state introduced as a witness A.P. Merillat, who at the time was a criminal investigator for the state prosecutors who handle prison crimes. He has testified in at least 15 trials that resulted in death sentences, but his incorrect testimony on the levels of security in prisons has since led to two overturned death sentences in Texas.

Runnels’ lawyers had hoped the state’s reliance on Merillat’s testimony would prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to stop his execution, too.

“As was the case in several other capital trials in which Merillat testified, the purpose of his testimony was to establish for the jury that the state prison system’s security for non-death sentenced inmates was so lax that the defendant would be a danger to others in prison if he received a life sentence,” attorneys Mark Pickett and Janet Gilger-VanderZanden wrote in a petition to the high court.

About 30 minutes after his execution was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m., the high court issued a short ruling denying Runnels' final appeal.

The Supreme Court has ruled that a death sentence based on materially inaccurate evidence is unconstitutional, and a court must overturn a death sentence unless judges determine beyond a reasonable doubt that the falsehood didn't contribute to the punishment, according to a Texas court ruling. Texas and Potter County officials argued that Runnels’ crime and his assaults on guards afterward were more than enough for the jury to have decided he was a future threat, regardless of Merillat’s testimony.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Runnels' appeal without comment or consideration of its merits last week. Potter County argued Texas law did not allow the court to review the appeal because it was filed too near his execution and could have been raised earlier. Pickett pointed plainly to the claim of false testimony in response.

"You shouldn’t be allowed to get a death sentence based on false testimony," he said after the Texas court ruling. "This is testimony that ... no one is disputing is false."

Merillat was called as a witness to describe how the Texas prison system decides the level of supervision and types of restrictions on housing and activity that inmates need. Generally, prisoners are assigned to one of five levels of the general population — G1 is the least restrictive, and G5 is the most — or to solitary confinement. Death row inmates are housed in solitary confinement, which means they are almost always in their cells except for solo recreation or limited visits behind glass.

At trial, Merillat testified that unless they are sentenced to death, capital murder convicts automatically are assigned to the relatively unrestricted housing as G3 inmates. Inmates at that level live in dorms or cells with other prisoners and have less supervision. They also have more job options and recreation time. Merillat said the prison wouldn’t look at previous convictions (Runnels had three) and that after 10 years, he could get an even less restrictive custody level.

Runnels’ lawyers said his testimony was “plainly and patently false.” And Merillat acknowledged in an interview with The Texas Tribune that he might have been wrong in Amarillo.

“When I testified, I testified with the knowledge that I had at the time,” he said.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice's classification plan changed months before Runnels’ trial to indicate that capital murder convicts sentenced to life in prison would never be allowed to be classified at a level below G3. It also states that those designated as having assaulted prison staff must first be at least a G4 — meaning more restrictions on visits, jobs, housing and recreation. Finally, though Merillat testified it’s an automatic process, the plan says custody level is set by a committee based on professional judgment and the inmate’s complete record.

Runnels’ record is gruesome.

He was a janitor at the prison boot factory in Amarillo, serving a long sentence for an aggravated robbery in Dallas. During a shift in January 2003, Runnels was angry about not being transferred to the barber shop for work, according to court records. He approached Wiley with a knife and slit his throat, killing him.

Runnels had previously hit a guard in the jaw. And after Wiley’s death, when Runnels was kept in high-security custody while awaiting trial, he threw urine, feces and a light bulb at guards on separate occasions, according to court records.

Runnels’ attorneys point to such offenses as reasons why he would have been kept in solitary confinement if given a life sentence, not as a G3 inmate, as Merillat said. Prosecutors argue Runnels’ history is a clear reason why the jury decided he’d be a future danger, therefore justifying a death sentence.

“The jury would undoubtedly have found Runnels to be a future danger no matter how strict his classification,” Texas Assistant Attorney General Jefferson Clendenin wrote to the Supreme Court on Monday in the state’s brief.

In the two cases where the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals tossed death sentences based on Merillat’s testimony, state officials said the men had little or no criminal histories. In one case, the jury specifically questioned during sentencing deliberations if the convict would get less restrictive housing later, according to the attorney general's filing. Others who have fought in the courts over Merillat’s testimony have been executed.

Merillat now works for the Montgomery County’s District Attorney’s Office. He wanted to make clear that he didn’t testify in Runnels’ case for money and that he had no agenda. He said he wouldn’t want anyone to suffer because he may have given bad information.

“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 said. “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.”

Runnels was the ninth and final person executed in Texas this year. Seven more are scheduled for execution through May.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

By Jolie McCullough

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