Texas Inmate Faces Execution for Killing Prison Supervisor

HOUSTON—A Texas inmate is set to be executed Wednesday evening for killing a supervisor at an Amarillo state prison shoe factory nearly 17 years ago.

Travis Runnels, 46, is facing lethal injection for the Jan. 29, 2003, death of 38-year-old Stanley Wiley.

Prosecutors said Runnels slashed Wiley’s throat at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Clements Unit in Amarillo because he didn’t like working as a janitor at the shoe factory. They said Runnels had wanted to transfer to a job at the prison barber shop and was angry at Wiley because that hadn’t happened.

Runnels had been serving a 70-year sentence for an aggravated robbery conviction in Dallas when he killed Wiley with a knife used to trim shoes. The factory makes shoes for inmates in the state’s prison system.

Runnels approached Wiley from behind, pulled his head back and used enough force for the knife to go through his trachea and cut Wiley’s spinal cord.

“It was cowardly,” prosecutor Randall Sims told jurors at Runnels’s trial.

If the execution happens, Runnels would be the 22nd inmate put to death this year in the United States and the ninth in Texas.

His attorneys are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, alleging a prosecution witness at his trial provided false testimony regarding his prison classification if a jury chose life without parole rather than a death sentence. Runnels’s attorneys also say that no defense was presented at his 2005 trial as his lawyers advised him to plead guilty and then called no witnesses in a trial that lasted two days.

Janet Gilger-VanderZanden, one of his attorneys, said Runnels has become a changed man during his 14 years on death row.

“There is true and authentic remorse for the death of Mr. Wiley. There are no excuses, rather there is a commitment to finding some kind of light in what was once a world of only darkness,” said Gilger-VanderZanden.

Lower courts and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles have turned down requests by Runnels’s attorneys to stop his execution.

Three inmates who were convicted in the deaths of state correctional officers or other prison employees have been executed since 1974, while three others remain on death row, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Wiley, who grew up in the Texas Panhandle city of Amarillo, began working as a state corrections officer in 1994. He was later promoted to a supervisory position.

Inmate Bud Williams Jr., who worked at the shoe factory, testified that Wiley “was a good guy.”

At his trial, Runnels’s lawyers didn’t present any witnesses or evidence, including information about Runnels’s troubled childhood and family history of drug and alcohol abuse, Gilger-VanderZanden said.

In their petition to the Supreme Court, Runnels’s attorneys argue his death sentence was mainly due to the testimony of prison expert A.P. Merillat, who told jurors that inmates like Runnels could not be held in a secure environment if sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has previously overturned the death sentences of two other inmates, in 2010 and 2012, after ruling that jurors had been given incorrect information from Merillat.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office pointed to assaults by Runnels on other guards after Wiley’s death, including throwing feces and a light bulb at them, as evidence he was a future danger and merited a death sentence.

In his clemency petition to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, Runnels included letters from more than 25 individuals from around the world who said Runnels has worked to make amends for what he did.

“He has become a light that shines bright even in the darkest of spaces. The tragedy that he is responsible for will only be compounded if his valuable light were to be extinguished,” Kristin Procanick, from Syracuse, New York, wrote in one of the letters.

By Juan A. Lozano and Michael Graczyk