Texas is scheduled to execute on April 21 its oldest death row inmate, Carl Buntion, who was found guilty of murdering a police officer more than 30 years ago but at 78 is no longer a danger to society, officials say.
In June 1990, this man, raised by an alcoholic and violent father, had already been convicted of sexually assaulting a child 13 times and was on probation.
During an intervention for a common traffic violation in Houston, Carl Buntion shoots and kills police officer James Irby.
Sentenced to the death penalty, he saw that sentence overturned in 2009 by the Texas Supreme Court, which felt the jury could not adequately hear the defense.
But in 2012 he was again sentenced to death.
In this case, Carl Buntion’s defense attorneys are not trying to prove his innocence. “Every day for the past 32 years, I’ve regretted what happened,” the latter said in an interview with broadcaster KHOU 11 this week.
But in this great conservative Southern state, the most executed in the United States, a person can only be sentenced to death if a jury determines that they pose a future danger to others.
However, Carl Buntion, who suffers in particular from osteoarthritis, dizziness, hepatitis and cirrhosis, “can no longer be dangerous,” plead his lawyers in an appeal to the Texas Pardons and Parole Board, which decides two days before the execution date.
Carl Buntion, who was convicted of only three disciplinary offenses during his decades in prison, has been isolated in his cell 23 hours a day for 20 years.
“In Texas, people on death row are put in a tiny cell that barely has a small slit at the top for a window,” Burke Butler, director of the Texas Defender Service, told AFP.
“They can’t see the ones they love unless they’re separated by a window and on the phone,” she adds.
Being in solitary confinement for 30, 40, or 50 years constitutes “torture,” Burke Butler asserts.
Last year, the US Supreme Court refused to overturn Carl Buntion’s conviction, but progressive Justice Stephen Breyer ruled that the length of his sentence “calls into question the constitutionality of the death penalty.”
“It’s a real ethical and human question about the obsession of the state of Texas to want to execute at any cost and under any conditions,” said Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, director of the Association Ensemble Against the Death Penalty.
There are 192 men and six women on death row in Texas. Three are in their 70s and five for crimes more than 40 years old.
Following the execution of Carl Buntion, Melissa Lucio, accused of killing her two-year-old daughter in 2007, is scheduled for April 27th.
Convicted after a contentious trial, she has the support of many elected Democrats and Republicans, as well as reality TV star Kim Kardashian, who helped publicize what her defense attorneys are calling a miscarriage of justice.
Since the 2000s, Texas has seen a significant decline in executions. From 137 between 2000 and 2004, their number fell to 35 between 2017 and 2021. A total still much higher than that of other American states.
For Burke Butler, this decline can be explained by prosecutors’ awareness “that the death penalty is an excessive and cruel punishment” but also by the fact that “people have better lawyers”.
Because in the face of the death penalty, not all are equal. “We end up on death row because we’re poor and poorly defended,” says Burke Butler.
In Texas, 45% of those awaiting execution are black, compared to just 13% of the general population.
Inequalities and an ethical debate that go well beyond national borders. In South Carolina, Richard Moore, who is scheduled to be executed on April 29, was the first convict to have to choose between the electric chair… and the firing squad.
The inmate chose the second option. Introduced there in May 2021, this method exists in three other American states, although it is used very little.