Oldest Texas death row inmate executed for Houston officer’s death

KPRC 2 Investigates looks at how this case changed the city, criminal justice system

HOUSTON – Carl Wayne Buntion, the man convicted of gunning down a Houston police officer more than three decades ago, was executed Thursday in Hunstville.

Buntion was convicted in the1990 murder of motorcycle officer James Irby.

Irby left behind his wife, Maura, and his young children.

Evidence photo of Houston motorcycle officer, James Irby, used in court by the state of Texas. (state of Texas)

It is a crime that should have never happened, but sparked significant changes in the city and the criminal justice system.

“It exposed so much wrong in the system,” said Andy Kahan, a victim’s rights advocate with Houston Crime Stoppers.

At 78-years of age, Buntion is the oldest inmate on Texas death row and will be the oldest inmate ever executed by the state.

A Houston traffic stop turned deadly

In June of 1990, Irby pulled over a car for a minor traffic violation at Airline Drive and Lyerly Street, according to court records.

John Killingsworth was driving and Buntion was in the passenger seat. According police, Irby asked the driver to step to the back of the car.

While the two were talking, police said Buntion slipped out of the passenger side and shot Irby one time in the head and then twice more in the back.

“I was always prepared for him to get hurt on his motorcycle, I wasn’t prepared for him to be shot down in cold-blood,” said Maura Irby, Jame’s wife, in 1990.

A crime scene photo showing Officer James Irby's motorcycle after he was shot and killed by Carl Buntion. (state of Texas)

Buntion then started firing at others passing by as he ran to a nearby warehouse, where he was eventually arrested.

Buntion, who had a criminal record dating back to the 60s, was convicted of Irby’s murder in 1991 and sentenced to death. At the time of Irby’s murder, Buntion had recently been released from prison. Due to prison overcrowding at the time, Buntion only served 13 months of a 15 year prison sentence for sexually assaulting a teenage girl.

During years of appeals, Buntion tried to claim he shot the officer in self-defense. A claim he later repeated from death row in 2009 to now retired KPRC 2 reporter Phil Archer, who covered Irby’s murder extensively.

Buntion: “There was no doubt in my mind he was fixing to shoot me.”

Archer: “At the end of the day, you still feel it was justified?”

Buntion: “At the end of the day, I know it was justified.”

Retired KPRC 2 reporter Phil Archer interviewed Carl Buntion in 2009 while he was on death row.

A witness to the shooting testified Irby never pulled his gun out.

“There was absolutely no evidence ever presented that Irby was threatening his life. Irby was making a traffic stop. Buntion was in violation of his parole and was afraid he might get sent back to prison,” said Archer during a recent interview with KPRC 2 Investigates.

Buntion released from prison, failed to report to parole officer

The murder of Irby came during a dark time in the city of Houston as it was still in the throes of the oil bust and violent crime rates were spiking.

“I think Irby’s murder was the last straw. People began saying, ‘Enough is enough. We got to clean this up,’” said Archer. “People in Houston felt like they were kind of under siege, and I don’t think that was too far from the truth.”

Houston Crime Stoppers victim’s rights advocate Andy Kahan was a parole officer at the time Irby was killed and he said the murder eventually led to a reckoning in our criminal justice system.

“When I saw what had happened, I said, ‘This can’t continue to happen,’” said Kahan.

Kahan said when Irby pulled over the car, Buntion assumed he was a wanted man because he did not report, as required, to a parole halfway house after he was released from prison.

An evidence photo of Carl Wayne Buntion after the shooting death of Officer James Irby in June 1990. (state of Texas)

“That’s a condition of his release, he’s a violent offender,“ said Kahan. “A warrant should have been put out for his arrest ASAP [but that] didn’t happen. Thirty days go by, nobody is alerted to anything.”

KPRC 2 news reports from 1990 also stated Buntion never reported to his parole officer.

“The sad thing about Irby’s murder is it didn’t have to happen, it shouldn’t have happened. There was no reason except Buntion got scared,” said Archer.

Irby’s death sparked criminal justice system reckoning

News stories from 1990 chronicled how Irby’s widow, Maura, launched the Irby Foundation with the goal of addressing how violent felons were being released from prison after serving barely a fraction of their sentences.

“Hopefully [we can] come up with some legislation to encourage mandatory sentencing,” Maura Irby explained during a 1990 news broadcast on KPRC.

Kahan said he joined that “crusade,” going from being a parole officer to a victim’s rights advocate.

The crusade eventually led to tighter supervision of parolees and a change in sentencing laws.

“This is what led to the law abolishing mandatory release, it led to the law of removing good time credits for violent offenders,” said Kahan.

Part of the reason Buntion has been on death so long is he won an appeal regarding the punishment handed down by the jury. Buntion claimed that jury was not allowed to hear evidence of an abusive childhood. In 2012, a retrial of the punishment phase was held and a second jury also sentenced Buntion to death.

“I hope, finally, they get what they truly need, and that’s the end of Buntion,” Kahan said in reference to Irby’s widow and two children.

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”