Death Watch: Without Intervention, Travis Runnels Will Be the Ninth Texan Executed in 2019
A troubled life, a dishonest witness, a “changed man”
"It would be a travesty to take away his life when he is the epitome of what a changed man looks like," reads one of the 29 letters included in a clemency petition submitted to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on Nov. 13 by Travis Runnels' attorneys. They ask that Runnels' execution, scheduled for Dec. 11, be halted and his sentence commuted to life in prison. The letters come from friends and family members scattered across the U.S. and Europe and describe him as "repentant," "reformed," "loving," and, especially, "changed."
No one would have used those words to describe Runnels on Jan. 29, 2003, when he was several years into a 70-year sentence for armed robbery. That morning, on the way to his shift at the boot factory in the Clements Unit near Amarillo, Runnels told a fellow inmate he was going to kill his supervisor, Stanley Wiley. Arriving at the factory, Runnels took a knife used for trimming leather, slipped up behind Wiley, and slit his throat. As Wiley bled to death, an inmate asked Runnels why he'd done it. "It could have been any offender or inmate, you know, as long as they was white," Runnels replied.
In the trial that followed, attorney Jim Durham advised Runnels to plead guilty, saying he'd try to save him from the death penalty during sentencing. In Texas, a jury must make two determinations to sentence a man to death: that he'll be a danger for the rest of his life, and that nothing in his life mitigates his guilt. Runnels grew up in a Dallas ghetto shuttled between his parents, both violent alcoholics, and attended 10 schools in nine years. He'd been abused mentally and physically by family members, threatened with sexual assault, shot at, and mugged. He'd witnessed many assaults, including murder.
Durham brought Runnels' mother, father, and grandmother to the Amarillo courtroom to tell his story. But they abandoned Runnels midtrial and drove back to Dallas. Durham could have had them returned but didn't. Instead, he cross-examined the state's witnesses and abruptly rested his case. He didn't offer a single witness or piece of evidence.
In addition to the letters testifying to Runnels' character, his clemency petition reports Durham's failures at trial. It also states that false testimony from discredited expert witness A.P. Merillat played a role in his death sentence. That argument is developed by Runnels' attorneys in greater detail in an appeal they submitted to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and federal district court on Nov. 19.
For years, Merillat helped Texas prosecutors by swearing that prisoners given life without parole would still be dangerous in prison. His career as an expert witness ended in 2012, when the CCA ruled he'd given false testimony in two cases, communting those sentences to life without parole. Merillat gave the same testimony at Runnels' trial, telling the jury that Runnels could attack inmates and guards in the mess halls, showers, and recreation areas. In truth, Runnels would have been confined to his cell 23 hours a day, never free to leave without handcuffs and a guard escort. Merillat's false testimony went unchallenged by Durham.
Shortly after Runnels arrived on death row in 2005, he began writing letters. "This is when his real growth began," says Kristin Procanick, Runnels' closest friend. "He became an avid reader on all different subjects, including personal development and writing." He began connecting with people, and the letters included in his clemency petition overflow with gratitude for these bonds. "He's one of the people who [taught] me to love and respect myself"; "He was the one who gave me support and positive energy throughout my therapy"; "When my mother was sick with cancer, he was there with comforting words"; "The depth of his caring for others is why people open up to him" – the letters are full of sentiments like these. If Runnels doesn't win a commutation from Gov. Greg Abbott or a stay from the CCA, those bonds will be broken as he becomes the ninth person put to death in Texas this year.