Pruett Gets 60-Day Delay Pending DNA Testing
A death row inmate is granted a rare reprieve
According to the state of Texas, on Dec. 17, 1999, Robert Pruett, 20, took a sharpened metal rod wrapped with tape and stabbed prison guard Daniel Nagle eight times, prompting a heart attack that killed the guard. Pruett then took a disciplinary complaint that Nagle had just written concerning Pruett's behavior that afternoon – he'd tried to take a sack lunch in the recreation yard, a violation of rules – and tore it up, discarding the pieces next to the guard's body.
At the time of Nagle's death, Pruett was already serving a 99-year sentence in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's McConnell Unit in Beeville for murder; at 16 he'd been certified to stand trial as an adult for his role in the beating and stabbing death by Pruett's father of a neighbor in the Harris County trailer park where they lived. Given his record, it's little wonder that a jury in 2002 sentenced Pruett to die for Nagle's murder.
But his execution, initially slated for May 21, last week was postponed for 60 days pending the outcome of agreed-to DNA testing that could demonstrate Pruett was not responsible for Nagle's death. Pruett has maintained his innocence, and his lawyer, David Dow, founder and co-director of the Texas Innocence Network at the University of Houston Law Center, is seeking to test pieces of the ripped-up disciplinary form to see if Pruett's DNA, or that of someone else, is on the paper. "DNA testing could corroborate [Pruett's] claim of innocence while also identifying the actual perpetrator of the murder," Dow wrote in a motion filed May 9. He notes that a palm print found on the paper was not a match to Pruett, and blood found on the pieces matched Nagle and "no other DNA profiles were developed from the report," he wrote.
Pruett says he was not responsible for the stabbing. The only eyewitnesses to the murder were other inmates, and Pruett argues that inmates who know he is not responsible for the fatal attack were intimidated by other inmates and corrupt guards into maintaining their silence. Those inmates are now ready to come forward and have provided affidavits about what they would have said at trial 10 years ago had they testified, Dow said. Indeed, one "possible" explanation for the death is that Nagle – known as a by-the-book, straight-arrow guy – was providing information about guards colluding with inmates to traffic drugs and was retaliated against. A number of officers working at the McConnell Unit were subsequently indicted, according to court records.
That theory was dismissed by prosecutors at Pruett's 2002 trial; Nagle was not an informer, the unit's warden said, and the state had ample evidence that Pruett was a disciplinary problem – including at least two incidents where he threatened to kill prison guards.
At press time, the state was set to carry out the execution of Jeffrey Williams, slated to be the 498th inmate put to death since reinstatement. And with Pruett given a reprieve, Elroy Chester, whose mental abilities are in question even while his violent nature is not, is slated to be the 499th inmate put to death, on June 12. For more on his case, see "Smart Enough to Die," April 19.