On April 21, 2022, three weeks after his 78th birthday, Carl Buntion was executed in Huntsville, Texas. Pleas by his lawyers and anti-death penalty organizations to grant Buntion clemency because of his age and poor health were unsuccessful. Buntion, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a Houston police officer in 1991, was injected a lethal dose of pentobarbital and declared dead at 6:39 P.M.
However, the state of Texas had started to take his life long before. During his first years on death row, prisoners were allowed to leave their cell for several hours a day. They could also work and spend some time with others. Then, in 1998, seven prisoners tried to escape from the Huntsville prison. Six were caught, and the seventh drowned. As a result, Texas moved its death row to the Polunksy Unit, a maximum-security prison in Livingston.
There, Buntion’s conditions of confinement changed significantly. He spent the next two decades in almost complete isolation, confined to a 60-square foot cell for 23 hours a day. He could spend the remaining hour alone in a barred recreation room that only held a desk and a chair—although recreation was often cancelled because of staff shortages. The men on death row were allowed a radio in their cell, but no TV. They could have two two-hour visits per month, behind glass, and make a five-minute phone call every week, if they had no disciplinary infractions.
When I met Carl Buntion in 2019, he had not had a visit or phone call in years. Most of his family and friends had passed away or stopped visiting long ago. This also meant that no one had sent him money for commissary in a while, and Carl lacked everything that made life on death row a bit more bearable—additional food, a fan, a typewriter. Contrary to what many people believe, life on death row is not free. Given that prisoners cannot work and have no income, it is quite expensive. It became a ritual during my visits to buy as much candy and chips from the vending machines as I could get with the twenty dollars in coins I was allowed to bring inside. I would always look for honeybuns first—Carl’s favorite snack, because they were so filling.
Over the years, Carl’s health deteriorated, and shoddy medical care made it worse. (Prisoners have to pay for medical treatment, too—$100 a year.) He suffered from Hepatitis B, high blood pressure, and chronic sciatic pain in his leg. Once, he collapsed in his cell because prison staff had forgotten to bring his medication. He was not allowed to take pain medication. Simple requests, like being handcuffed at the front instead of the back because of a broken wrist or using a wheelchair because he was too weak to walk, were subjects of constant negotiation with prison officials—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
A few months after we met, Carl signed a medical release form that authorized me to discuss his care with prison medical staff. When I called the medical unit for the first time to ask for an appointment for Carl, the nurse on the other end hung up on me. Other times, when I managed to speak with someone, I was told that I would receive callbacks that never came. For the most part, interacting with prison officials over Carl’s health was a Sisyphean challenge that never yielded any real results. The combination of inertia and over-bureaucratization typical of prisons keeps relatives and friends of prisoners in a constant state of worry and frustration.
The food in prison exacerbated Carl’s health problems. People on death row don’t get enough to eat, and the meals are not nutritious at best and inedible at worst. During the quarterly lockdowns—a several-week exercise during which cells were searched— prisoners only received so-called “johnny sacks,” which typically consist of boiled eggs and a peanut butter sandwich. Carl once told me that in 31 years, he could count on one hand the meals that had arrived in his cell warm.
Like most men on death row, Carl went through several appeals. In 2009, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled his sentence unconstitutional because the jury had not been instructed to consider mitigating evidence. At a new sentencing hearing in 2012, Carl’s younger brother Bobby told the court about how they grew up with a sadistic, alcoholic father who terrorized his family. The children and Carl’s mother were beaten almost every night, according to Bobby. Once, while out hunting, Carl’s father deliberately shot him in the leg and made him walk back home because he did not want to get blood in his car. On another occasion, he broke Carl’s wrist with a baseball bat.
Texas plans to execute 78-year-old Carl Buntion on April 21st. He is the oldest person currently on death row in Texas after serving more than 31 years. Carl does not pose any future danger as required under Texas law for a person to be eligible for the death penalty. pic.twitter.com/xzq2P5oads
— Sister Helen Prejean (@helenprejean) April 11, 2022
When he was 12, Carl was thrown out of the house because he tried to defend his mother, and lived on the street for six months. Before he could finish high school, his father pulled him out of school to make him work in construction for the landlord of their new house. When the house was finished, Carl told me, his father lost the house in one night at gambling.
None of this evidence change the outcome: Carl was sentenced to death again based on a finding of future dangerousness, a precondition for a death sentence in Texas. However, the next twenty years would prove that Carl was no danger to others. During his time at the Polunsky Unit he did not get a single disciplinary write-up, an incredible accomplishment in an environment where punishments for real or made-up infractions are common.
Carl lost all his subsequent appeals, too. Last year, Carl’s lawyers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether the length of his confinement and Texas’s arbitrary administration of capital punishment constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The petition cited previous opinions by Justices Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens. In Lackey v. Texas in 1995, Stevens had argued that two purposes for the death penalty—retribution and deterrence—were no longer served when a defendant spent a significant period of time under a sentence of death. In Glossip v. Gross in 2015, Breyer criticized the administration of the death penalty, which often depends on the location of the crime or the race or gender of the defendant, as “capricious, random, indeed arbitrary,” and therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Most of the arguments from Carl’s lawyers had already been deemed meritless by the Supreme Court; Breyer’s opinion in Glossip was a dissent, and Stevens’s “opinion” in Lackey was a mere statement regarding the Court’s decision to deny cert. Last October, the Court turned Carl’s case away. Only Breyer wrote separately to note his view that Carl’s “lengthy confinement…calls into question the constitutionality of the death penalty.” On January 4, 2022, a Texas judge signed Carl’s execution order, reading it aloud to him and outlining in detail how his execution would take place. She ended as follows: “Godspeed, Mr. Buntion.”
NEW: Supreme Court allows execution of Carl Wayne Buntion go ahead in Texas. No noted dissents, but Justice Breyer issues a statement repeating his lament that capital punishment is likely cruel and unusual and calling on SCOTUS to reconsider its constitutionality. pic.twitter.com/YlPhvG2G2H
— Steven Mazie (@stevenmazie) April 21, 2022
On the two days before his execution, Carl was granted more visitation time than usual: He could receive visits from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M.—still behind glass, though, with conversations taking place through an old, black, crackling phone. Carl, who had caught pneumonia the week before his execution, coughed incessantly. A fall in the prison van on the way back from the hospital had left him with a head wound and several bruises. The driver had braked sharply, and Carl, whose hands were cuffed and feet were shackled, had flown through the van like a human pinball.
Weakened and confused, on his first visitation day, he forgot to put on a shirt under his prison jumpsuit. When he asked the corrections officers to take him back to his cell to get a T-shirt, they refused, claiming they did not have the belt to cuff him, a 78-year-old man, to his wheelchair. Carl spent the day shivering in his visitation cage. Still, as he told me on the morning of his death: “These two days were the two best days in the last 31 years.”
Carl’s medical conditions raised a separate question of a pentobarbital injection would make his execution even more painful than it would be for a healthy person. Pentobarbital causes pulmonary edema—the buildup of fluid in the lungs. In 2020, a University of Washington anesthesiology professor called it “a virtual medical certainty that most, if not all prisoners, will experience excruciating suffering, including sensations of drowning and suffocation” when executed using pentobarbital. Two days before Carl’s execution, I asked Dr. Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist at Emory University Hospital who had analyzed autopsy reports of executed prisoners, about the possible effects of pentobarbital during Carl’s execution. He confirmed to me that Carl’s pneumonia would exacerbate these symptoms.
The state of Texas, unimpressed by the fact that it was planning to torture a man to death, proceeded anyway. In his final words, Carl expressed remorse for his crime and said that he hoped the victim’s family would get closure from his death. While he was loaded onto the gurney on the evening of April 21, he could hear more than two dozen former and active motorcycle cops revving up their engines outside the execution chamber to celebrate his death. We, the witnesses, could hear them too while we were waiting to be led in the room, helpless and full of pain at this last humiliation of someone we loved. (My reaction when I left the prison towards the men taunting him was later covered by the media.)
Prisoners on death row die many deaths before their executions. Before the state of Texas took his life, Carl was systematically stripped of his rights, his dignity, his humanity. He was denied adequate food and healthcare. He was cut off from all social interaction, and exposed to a culture of casual cruelty and arbitrary, ever-changing rules that leave prisoners feeling humiliated and helpless. Although Carl always maintained that he acted in self-defense, prosecutors at his trial argued that he shot the officer unprovoked and in cold blood. For decades, journalists would recount this version of events in breathless detail every time Carl’s name came up.
Carl’s case reflects the many ways in which the legal system fails to protect the constitutional rights of men and women sentenced to death. In 1980, a federal district court ruled that prison conditions in Texas, where facilities were overcrowded and understaffed, violated the Eighth Amendment. Yet as Carl’s experience shows, the same issues persist on Texas death row—and in the Texas prison system in general—more than 40 years later.
At various points in Supreme Court history, the justices have raised serious doubts about the constitutionality of the death penalty. Yet to date, the Court has refused to recognize the inhumane conditions and lengths of confinement on death row as cruel and unusual punishment, and ignored evidence of the excruciating symptoms caused by pentobarbital’s ongoing use in executions. For people on death row, the Eighth Amendment might as well not exist.
When asked about Carl after his execution, a member of the victim’s family told reporters that they “didn’t think of him as a person.” The system, in other words, worked exactly as it was intended.