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The jury accepted Runnels's guilty plea in October 2005 and sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence in September 2007.
In his appeals, Runnels alleged that his guilty plea was involuntary because his attorneys misled him into thinking that they would present a more substantial defense during his sentencing hearing and possibly help him avoid the death penalty. In 2001, the Court of Criminal Appeals sent his case back to the trial court so that Laura Hamilton, one of Runnels's attorneys, could testify on this issue. After a live hearing in which Hamilton testified, the trial court found that Runnels received constitutionally adequate assistance from counsel. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed this finding in March 2012. All of Runnels's subsequent appeals in state and federal court were denied.
After the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Runnnels's appeal in 2019, Runnels wrote a letter to the Houston Chronicle discussing some of the issues with his case. "Never at any point have I not accepted responsibility for my actions," he wrote, "but I can't silently take an unfair shake of justice."
In a last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court, attorneys contended that Runnels's death sentence was invalid because of false testimony given by A. P. Merillat, who testified as an expert witness for the state at Runnels's punishment hearing. Merillat testified about the levels of inmate classification in Texas prisons and what they mean as far as how prisoners are housed and supervised. The essence of Merillat's testimony was that because of TDCJ's inmate classification rules, Runnels would be a threat to prison workers and other prisoners unless he was sentenced to death. Runnels's lawyers claimed Merillat's testimony was "plainly and patently false" and, therefore, their client's death sentence was unconstitutional. They stated that some aspects of what Merillat testified to had been changed by TDCJ months before Runnels's trial, while other aspects were simply incorrect.
Merillat acknowledged, in an interview with the Texas Tribune, that he might have been wrong, but said he did not deliberately misstate anything. "When I testified, I testified with the knowledge that I had at the time," he said.
Two other Texas death sentences involving similar false testimony by Merillat have been overturned - most recently in 2012 - but in both of those cases, the prisoners, unlike Runnels, had little to no criminal histories. The courts have also upheld death sentences in cases where Merillat testified. The crucial issue is not necessarily whether false testimony was made, but whether the jury relied upon it. The state argued, in its brief to the Supreme Court, that the jury would have found Runnels to be a danger in prison no matter how strict TDCJ's classification rules were.
Merillat, who now works for the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, agreed that Runnels should not have received the death sentence if jurors relied on something he said that was incorrect. "If the jury gave him the death penalty because of his particular crime and the heinousness of it and the actions he committed after his crime ... then the jury's verdict should stand," Merillat said. "If they gave him the death penalty because of what I said and I was wrong, I don't want him to have the death penalty."
Janet Gilger-VanderZanden, one of Runnels's attorneys, said Runnels had "true and authentic remorse for the death of Mr. Wiley."
Runnels's execution was delayed for about 30 minutes while prison officials awaited the Supreme Court's response. The court issued a short ruling denying Runnels's appeal at about 6:30 p.m.
Three of Runnels's female friends and two of his attorneys watched his execution from a viewing room adjacent to the death chamber. Stanley Wiley's sister, Margaret Robertson, and her husband observed from another viewing room. Several hundred Texas corrections officers stood in formation outside the prison.
Runnels answered "No" when the warden asked if he wanted to make a final statement. He neither accepted responsibility nor expressed remorse in his last moments, but he did smile at his friends and mouth words and a kiss toward them after the lethal injection was started. He did not look over at the room where Robertson and her husband stood. He blurted out "Woof, woof!" before taking his final breaths. He was pronounced dead at 7:26 p.m.
By David Carson. Posted on 12 December 2019.
Sources: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, court documents, Associated Press, Huntsville Item, Texas Tribune.