The Tragedy of Carl Buntion: Dr. Barbara Laubenthal & The Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood on The Movement to Abolish the Death Penalty, Melissa Lucio & Indifference to an Execution
On June 27, 1990, Carl Buntion killed of Houston Police Officer James Irby. There is no denying this fact. For his crime, Buntion was sentenced to death. After waiting almost 32 years in prison, Buntion was executed. This is a short analysis by Buntion’s dear friend, Dr. Barbara Laubenthal and national death row spiritual advisor, Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood on the tragedy of Buntion’s final days.
Indifference might be the greatest of all evils. In the face of tragedy, the human experience seems to demand that we feel something. In the case of Carl Buntion…for many…there was nothing. In fact…in the State of Texas…executions have become so routine that most people don’t even notice. We guess in a State where killing has become so common one might expect such indifference. But, when indifference comes from fellow activists…the tragedy is made all the more tragic.
Let there be no doubt, that we are overjoyed that Melissa Lucio received a stay of execution and hope that she will be free very soon. This article is less about Melissa Lucio and more about the culture of death penalty activism that far too often prioritizes some cases over others…sometimes even at the expense of others.
In his final days, Carl Buntion regularly prayed for Melissa Lucio. Unfortunately, to some extent he was left to wonder if anybody was praying for him. You see, when one death penalty case is prioritized of other cases…there is a spiritual tragedy that plays out. Can you imagine sitting in a cell knowing that everybody is praying about someone else’s case when you are about to be executed? It would be very easy to think that one has been abandoned by God when everyone is claiming God for someone else. Just last week, one wouldn’t have had to search social media too long to have seen that the prayers for Melissa Lucio far outweighed the prayers for Carl Buntion. This is a tragedy.
In is final days, Carl Buntion believed that Melissa Lucio shouldn’t be executed. Unfortunately, he was left to wonder how many people held the same beliefs about him. The campaign around Lucio was based around a declaration of innocence. Buntion was guilty. Does this mean his case mattered less? Multiple commentators on social media seemed to think so. We can’t end the death penalty by prioritizing claims of innocence…abolition will only happen when our priority is prioritizing the lives of all people. Our demands for the lives of those on death row should never be conditioned on innocence. Doing so devalues human life and hurts the cases of those who are not innocent. This is a tragedy.
In his final days, Carl Buntion often spoke about his concern for the family of his victim, James Irby. By prioritizing one case over all other, tremendous indifference is shown to the victims in all the other cases. The failure of individual campaign models of activism are that they don’t foster a holistic approach to all of these cases. This is a tragedy.
In his final days, Carl Buntion dreamed of a day when the death penalty would be no more. Multiple people have argued that the case of Melissa Lucio has brought new people into the movement to abolish the death penalty. If the attention paid to the execution of Carl Buntion…in the literal dead middle of the campaign to free Lucio is any indicator…such a statement could not be further from the truth. This is a tragedy.
Campaigns that prioritize one human life over another are always going to end in tragedy. Carl Buntion’s dead body is a direct testament to such a fact. So, is Carl Buntion a collateral victim of the campaign to save the life of Melissa Lucio? We don’t know for sure. But we do know one thing for certain…Buntion is certainly not a survivor of it.
Dr. Barbara Laubenthal, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin & Founder, Capital Punishment and Social Rights Research Initiative
The Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood, Dean & The Rev. Charles Moore Professor of Prophetic Theology, The New Theology School & Spiritual Advisor, Convener of Clergy United Against the Death Penalty