Texas is preparing to execute Travis Runnels (pictured) on December 11, 2019 based on the “expert” testimony of a prosecution investigator whose false depiction of prison conditions has helped to put fifteen defendants on the state’s death row. If Runnels is executed, he will be the third person put to death in Texas this year after former Texas Special Prosecution Unit criminal investigator, A.P. Merillat provided false testimony at their trials.

Runnels was convicted and sentenced to death for killing a prison employee while serving time for robbery. His defense lawyer presented no mitigating evidence to spare Runnels’ life. Under the Texas death-penalty statute, that meant that whether Runnels was spared or sentenced to die depended upon whether the prosecution proved that Runnels would pose a continuing threat of violence if sentenced to life without parole.

Merillat worked with Texas prosecutors as an expert witness on conditions of incarceration and the likelihood that defendants could commit future acts of violence in the conditions in which they would be imprisoned. In at least fifteen capital trials, including Runnels’, Merillat falsely asserted that prisoners convicted of capital murder would be “automatically” placed in mid-level security, where they would be in frequent contact with prison guards and non-violent offenders. He also falsely claimed that “If [a defendant] had prior convictions … the prison is not going to look at those previous convictions” in determining the type of facility in which the prisoner would be incarcerated. Runnels’ defense lawyer made no attempt to rebut Merillat’s false claims.

Runnels’ current lawyers have argued that Merillat’s testimony was especially prejudicial in his trial, given the nature of the charges against him. Frank Aubuchon, a 26-year employee of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs Texas’ prisons, told Texas Monthly, that a prisoner with Runnels’ record “would have gone into administrative segregation,” where he would be held in solitary confinement 22 hours per day with no contact with other prisoners and only minimal interaction with guards. “There is no way in God’s green earth” that Runnels would have been placed in the general prison population, Aubuchon said.

In his Texas Monthly interview, Aubuchon said “Merillat’s testimony was just bulls**t. What Merillat would do for years, when he got on the stand, I’ve seen it described by someone else as throwing a skunk in the jury box. His job was to scare the jury into killing the guy. And that’s what he did, for years.”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has reversed two death sentences that were tainted by Merillat’s testimony, when defense lawyers raised the issue on the defendant’s initial appeal. However, it has allowed other cases in which Merillat testified to proceed to. Texas executed Billie Wayne Coble and Robert Sparks earlier in 2019, despite evidence that Merillat provided false or misleading testimony at their trials. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) has rejected Runnels’ appeal on procedural grounds, leaving the U.S. Supreme Court or executive clemency as the only means to stop his execution.

Mark Pickett, one of Runnels’ defense lawyers, said, “The state is not even denying that Merillat testified falsely. They aren’t denying it because they know they can’t deny it. The best thing they could come up with is that maybe Travis’ counsel should have found the claim a few years ago. People complain about criminals getting off on technicalities, but that’s what this is: the state put on a lying witness, whether they knew it or not. And now they want everyone to ignore it because it took people too long to notice what they did.”

On December 6, 2019, Runnels filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to stay his execution and to review his claim. He has asked the Court to adopt a rule that a conviction or death sentence must be overturned when the prosecution’s presentation of false testimony “undermines confidence in the outcome of the trial.”

Mental health experts have long argued that predictions of future dangerousness are nothing more than junk science that contribute to arbitrary and racially discriminatory death sentences. Runnels’ petition asserts that “Texas prosecutors have a long history of relying on false, misleading, and discredited expert testimony” to convince juries that a defendant will pose a continuing threat to society if spared the death penalty.

According to Runnels’ petition, Dr. James Grigson—a psychiatrist nicknamed “Dr. Death”—provided false and unethical testimony on future dangerousness in hundreds of Texas capital cases and was eventually expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians. Another psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Coons, testified “with near certainty” in approximately 50 Texas death penalty cases that the defendant would pose a future danger, reaching that opinion “based on a completely untested methodology and without even interviewing the defendant.” Psychologist Dr. Walter Quijano provided false and racist testimony in seven Texas death-penalty cases that blacks and Latinos were more likely because of their race to commit future acts of violence.


Christopher Hooks, Who Gets to Live and Die When the State Relies on False Testimony in Death Penalty Cases?, Texas Monthly, December 9, 2019; Brant Bingamon, Death Watch: Without Intervention, Travis Runnels Will Be the Ninth Texan Executed in 2019, Austin Chronicle, December 62019

You can read the U.S. Supreme Court plead­ings in Runnels v. Davis here.