The Texas death chamber is painted teal, like a doctor’s surgical scrubs. The tiny room, barely large enough to hold the gurney that my client Travis Runnels was strapped to, was antiseptic in its cruelty. Travis was already in position when my co-counsel Janet VanderZanden and I, along with three of Travis’s close friends, entered the cramped observation room. Travis was alone in the death chamber on the other side of the plexiglass, lying prone with his right arm held out to his side, and a needle in his skin ready to fill him with poison. A microphone hung from the ceiling just above his head, ready to record his last words, but Travis refused to participate in that grim ritual.
Travis instead spent his final moments sharing a kind smile and mouthing “I love you” to his friends. His final actions reaffirmed what he had already told us: that he had been strong to the end, that our lives would go on, and that he would no longer have to bear the torture of isolation on death row.
This was classic Travis. He had been sent to death row for killing Stanley Wiley, a factory supervisor at the prison where Travis was serving a 70-year sentence for robbery. Since landing on death row, however, he changed his life around.
It is not uncommon for death row inmates to have a pen pal or two. Many programs exist to connect inmates with people on the outside who are appalled by the death penalty and want to offer some kind words. Travis, however, had built an international network of dozens of supporters unlike any I had ever seen. Through these people, Travis found the family support he never had as a child. And as he grew as a person, the network of people hoping to share their thoughts and read Travis’s kind words grew along with him.
Many of these friends wrote letters in support of Travis’s clemency application, and their sentiment was unanimous: despite his own dire circumstances, Travis always put the wellbeing of others first. He never asked anyone for a dime, but would often use his own limited funds to buy gifts for friends in need. Any illusion that this was all an act to win relief was dispelled when he was denied clemency by state parole board two days before his execution, and Travis remained his usual self. When I met with him hours before he was scheduled to die, he was calm and grateful, and expressed concern for his friends who had traveled from New York and France just to see him murdered. Travis had been a model prisoner, emblematic of the growth and improvement that “corrections” is supposed to stand for. By unanimous vote, the parole board wanted him dead anyway.
As I watched my client of three years die, I thought of all the failures that led to this point. Chief among these failures is the Texas justice system, which chose cruelty and lawlessness over truth and compassion. It allowed this man to be executed despite uncontroverted proof that the prosecution secured the death sentence by relying on the testimony of an investigator who lied to the jury, telling them that if they chose to sentence Travis to life in prison, he would be a free man within its walls, and enjoy privileges that would allow him to easily harm prison guards and other inmates. None of this was true. (Because Travis’s offense involved the death of prison staff, he would have faced near total lockdown in administrative segregation.) I also thought of the failure of Travis’s family, school, and social services to save him from a childhood of poverty and domestic violence that led him down a destructive path as a teenager. I thought of all the attorneys who had failed him: his trial attorney who did not call a single witness to testify on his behalf; his state appeals attorney who failed to call any witnesses in a post-conviction hearing that could have righted these trial errors; and his first federal appeals attorney, who filed boilerplate motions before abruptly quitting the case. And finally me, who filed more motions and pleadings and appeals than I could count in an effort to undo the errors of those before me, none of which did anything to stop the march toward execution.
For three years, my co-counsel and I wrote, filed, argued, and fought to stop the State of Texas from killing a man.
To some, the death penalty may seem like a small thing compared to the many injustices in this world: A travesty to be sure, but perhaps a lesser one. Death sentences and executions are on the decline in this country, largely because the quality of defense counsel has improved dramatically in the last two decades, and because citizens who serve on juries simply seem less death-inclined than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2018, 25 people were executed in the United States, a near record low. By contrast, something like 45,000 people die every year because they lack adequate health insurance.
But the death penalty is about more than the numbers. It is the rot at the core of our culture and our values. For three years, my co-counsel and I wrote, filed, argued, and fought to stop the State of Texas from killing a man. A bullet was traveling at his head in slow motion, and all anyone with authority had to do was say it was okay to let him step out of the way. Despite Travis’s incompetent trial counsel, despite his federal appeals attorney who abandoned him, and despite a witness who lied at his trial, no one with any power seemed to care. A government and a culture that allows this to happen will never end wars or achieve social or economic justice, because it is hellbent on death and destruction as an end unto itself.
Execution is supposed to be reserved for the so-called “worst-of-the-worst” killers, but case after case demonstrates that, when it comes to the nature of the crime, the imposition of the death penalty is arbitrary. Most state death penalty laws are based on a statutory scheme developed in 1962 by American Law Institute (ALI), a scholarly group that is as ivory tower as its name implies. The scheme requires jurors to consider “aggravating factors” that are dripping in legalese, and are often so broad enough to encompass most intentional killings. Unsurprisingly, asking jurors to determine if a murder was committed for “pecuniary gain” or “while the defendant was engaged or was an accomplice in the commission of, or an attempt to commit, or flight after committing or attempting to commit” another felony did little to isolate the worst cases. Texas, ground zero for executions, modified the ALI system to require jurors to find the defendant poses a “continuing threat to society.” But this feature merely injected more arbitrariness by asking jurors to predict the unknowable, and has led prosecutors to rely on a cast of charlatans posing as “experts” who falsely claim they can predict the future.
A recent study found that Arizona’s death penalty system, which is based on the ALI scheme, makes 99 percent of murders death penalty-eligible. Another study demonstrated that many jurors do not understand the complex death penalty laws they are instructed on. ALI itself abandoned its own framework in 2009, citing the “intractable institutional and structural obstacles” to creating a workable system, but its creation shambles on.
In reality, the victims of the death penalty are sacrifices to a society that refuses to come to terms with its own history of racist terror and unadulterated greed. Executions are disproportionately meted out on poor and black people. A black person who kills a white person is especially likely to be sentenced to death. There exists a disturbing overlap between states and counties that once carried out the most lynchings and those that now kill under the pretense of law. Prosecutors have also routinely used jury selection procedures to remove black people from juries. (Another man I represent, Russell Tucker, was sentenced to death by an all-white jury in North Carolina after prosecutors relied on a prefabricated list of excuses to explain why they kept striking black jurors from the case.) Given these realities, Travis, a poor black man from Dallas convicted of killing a white man, never stood a chance. His fate may have been sealed the moment his own great-great-grandfather was lynched by a white Dallas mob in 1910.
One of the last things Travis told me is that he didn’t want to be a martyr. He wanted to see the injustice in his case corrected, but in the end he became another example of the barbarism that rules us. It’s part of the same knuckle-dragging fascism that led President Trump to demand the death penalty for five innocent black men. If we can’t bring ourselves to end the death penalty, we will never be able to be able to build the world we deserve for ourselves.
Executions are designed to dehumanize their victims. Travis spent most of his final hours alone in a holding cell. In the brief meeting the prison permitted me to have with him, we spoke through a thick metal screen. I could barely see him, let alone touch him. In fact, during his nearly 15 years on death row, Travis never touched a single person who wasn’t a prison guard. I’ll never forget that as I waited in an entry area to be led into my final client meeting, a guard at the front desk received a phone call from a woman in Australia, pleading to speak with her friend Travis in the hours before his death. The guard shouted her down as if she were an unreasonable customer demanding the impossible. Travis’s ability to find humanity through this disgusting process should not be forgotten.
If you would like to donate to charities that help people in prison in Texas, you can do so here:
Travis Runnels dreamed of starting a charity for underprivileged children, like these Dallas-area organizations: