Death Watch: Executing Texas' Law of Parties
Jeff Wood never killed anybody; Robert Pruett may not have either. Why does the state want to put them both to death?
It's been a slow summer in Texas' death chamber, with executions stayed left and right, state Court of Criminal Appeals justices questioning the constitutionality of capital punishment, and the state having a hard time procuring the proper cocktails to administer each killing. Two deaths are on the docket for consecutive days this month, each of which challenges the arbitrary order of state-funded executions altogether.
Robert Pruett is scheduled for execution on Tuesday, Aug. 23. The 36-year-old has been in prison since he was 15, when he was sentenced to 99 years for acting as an accomplice to his father's 1995 murder of their Harris County neighbor, Ray Yarborough. (Pruett initially engaged in a fight with Yarborough. His father, Howard, came outside and stabbed Yarborough with a knife. Pruett's brother Steve was also convicted of serving as an accessory to the murder and sentenced to 40 years.) On Dec. 17, 1999, while incarcerated at the McConnell Unit in Beeville, Pruett was taken from his cell and questioned for the murder of Daniel Nagle, a corrections officer and president of the local union.
Nagle, the first corrections officer killed in a Texas prison since 1985, was found in the unit's multipurpose room stabbed eight times. (An autopsy revealed a heart attack as cause of death.) No officers witnessed the killing, and no inmates immediately spoke up. Security cameras stationed around the complex were all reported to have been pointed away from the multipurpose room. Found near Nagle's body were a homemade shank fashioned from a metal rod and a torn-up disciplinary note Nagle had issued to Pruett earlier that day after he found Pruett eating a sandwich in the recreational area. The note led the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Internal Affairs investigators to Pruett. While questioning him, investigators noticed a cut on one of his fingers, and splotches of blood on his shirt. Pruett denied involvement in Nagle's murder, saying that he cut himself while lifting weights and used the shirt to dab off the blood.
The medium-security prison went on lockdown. (Pruett, by then the primary suspect, though he wouldn't be indicted for a few more months, had already been removed from the complex.) Three days later, at roughly 3:45am, an inmate jimmied the lock on his door and broke out of his cell. He attacked a guard with a six-inch shank and forced himself into the unit's control center, stabbing another guard in the forearm before unlocking the doors on his fellow inmates' cells. Eighty prisoners broke out and lay waste to the complex. It took 100 officers two hours to retake control. Questioned later by the Houston Chronicle, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Corrections said "we could see no relationship" between Nagle's murder and the subsequent riot.
Not everybody saw things that way. In the months that followed, suspicions abounded that Nagle's death was part of a conspiracy that inmates and dirty correctional officers had drawn up after learning that Nagle – a principled union man – had begun to take notice of collusion between certain inmates and COs. (A month after his murder, three McConnell guards were indicted for laundering money to certain inmates.) In fact, one month before his murder, and two weeks before he stood on the Texas Capitol steps to advocate for improved staffing and working conditions for TDCJ correctional officers, Nagle's name had shown up on a hit list within the Beeville unit. Eliseo Martinez, one of the correctional officers interviewed during the investigation, was arrested in late January 2000 for transporting a package believed to have contained $60,000 in laundered drug profits for inmates. Weeks before, during the investigation into Nagle's killing, he suggested that Pruett had at one point told him that he possessed a homemade shank.
Prosecutors looked past the hints of corruption during Pruett's 2002 trial, choosing instead to indict the 22-year-old on the evidence of the disciplinary note and bloody finger. None of Pruett's blood was found on Nagle, however, and the shank found near the CO yielded no fingerprints. The disciplinary note also did not produce Pruett's fingerprints; latent prints lifted from the document had been tied to a third party. At trial, six different inmates who'd initially chosen to stay silent came forth to testify for the state. Four said they saw Pruett attacking Nagle; one said he heard Pruett talking about a weapon with another inmate; a sixth said he was in the multipurpose room before the killing and left after Pruett walked in and told him to leave because he was about to "do something."
Pruett has since faced four different execution dates. In 2013, 12 days before his scheduled death, Pruett received a 60-day reprieve to allow touch DNA testing on the disciplinary report, a science not available to Pruett's defense during his trial. (The trial court held that it was "not reasonably probable that [Pruett] would have been acquitted had the new results been available at trial.") In April 2015, two hours before his second scheduled execution, the district court issued a stay so that DNA testing could be conducted on a piece of tape covering the handle of the shank used to stab Nagle. Those efforts proved unsuccessful, as the shank yielded no conclusive DNA evidence. Pruett's attorneys have argued that the state conveniently failed to properly preserve the evidence, but continue with efforts for testing.
Twenty-four hours after Pruett's anticipated execution, the state plans to end the life of Jeffery Wood, who turns 43 on Aug. 19. Wood's case is somewhat similar to Pruett's. He, too, ended up in prison for a "Law of Parties" conviction. In 1996, he was arrested and eventually sentenced to death for the murder of Kris Keeran, a gas station attendant in Kerrville. Wood didn't fire the bullet that killed Keeran. In fact, he wasn't even inside the building. He was in a pickup truck in the parking lot when his friend Daniel Reneau shot Keeran in the face during a botched robbery. Wood jumped out of the car and ran inside when he heard the gunshot. There, Reneau pointed his gun at Wood and told him to make off with the Texaco's surveillance camera and VCR.
Under Texas' Law of Parties statute, any person who solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid another individual during a crime remains implicated should another crime occur – if the second crime is one that could have reasonably been anticipated. Which raises Wood's involvement in a convenience store robbery to the level of capital murder. What's unclear, however, is whether or not Wood actually knew a robbery was happening: 22 at the time, and with no history or criminal record, Wood was a particularly slow-developing individual. He suffered from learning disabilities all his life, and even as an adult had an IQ of only 80. His trial attorneys argued that he didn't know Reneau was carrying a weapon; that the two had discussed the potential robbery in advance of the Jan. 2 murder but that Wood's understanding was that the heist had been called off.
During Reneau's trial, which took place prior to Wood's, prosecutors dismissed Wood as little more than a tagalong to Reneau's mission. He was initially deemed incompetent when his own case went to trial in 1996, and got sent off to a state hospital, from which he was discharged after 22 days with no medication or treatment and conveniently found to be competent enough to stand trial. There, he tried to fire his attorneys during sentencing and asked to represent himself. Unsuccessful in that effort, he settled for ordering his counsel to not cross-examine any witness or put out evidence on his behalf.
Wood was initially slated for execution on Aug. 21, 2008, but received a 30-day reprieve so his attorneys could try to convince District Judge Orlando Garcia that their client was too impaired for execution. He was granted another chance to challenge his case in 2013 – again over issues of competency. And on Aug. 1, 2016, Wood's attorney Jared Tyler filed an appeal to the District Court and Texas Court of Appeals on eight claims. Among those were issues pertaining to competency, but also questions concerning the application of the Eighth Amendment and whether Wood's punishment fits his crime.
"Wood's case is the embodiment of the arbitrariness of capital punishment in Texas," Tyler wrote. "It is impossible to hazard a guess how many thousands of individuals in Texas have committed more disturbing crimes than Wood; who played a far greater, more culpable role in those crimes than Wood; who had a far worse criminal record than Wood; and who received a term of years or life as a sentence. Yet Wood, an impaired individual who neither killed anybody, intended that anybody be killed, or even meaningfully anticipated that anybody would be killed, has found himself convicted of capital murder and sitting on Texas's death row."
Wood currently has an appeal pending before the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which is expected to release a recommendation to Gov. Greg Abbott 48 hours before his scheduled execution. A Texas governor hasn't granted clemency to anybody on death row since former Governor Rick Perry commuted the sentence of Kenneth Foster in 2007. Foster, sent to death row for the murder of Michael LaHood Jr., had been the driver during a robbery spree that ultimately led to LaHood's death. Foster's sentence was commuted to life in prison after Perry expressed concern about how Foster and Mauriceo Brown, who shot and killed LaHood, were tried at the same time.
If their appeals are unsuccessful, Pruett and Wood will become the seventh and eighth Texans executed this year, and the 20th and 21st since Abbott assumed office last January. The state has five more inmates on the execution schedule in 2016, beginning with Rolando Ruiz on Aug. 31.