State lawyers agreed Thursday to a 60-day reprieve for death row inmate Robert Pruett, who was scheduled for execution May 21, after the inmate filed a request for DNA testing, arguing it may prove his innocence in the 1999 stabbing of prison correctional officer Daniel Nagle.
Pruett, 33, was convicted in 2002 of Nagle’s killing and maintains that inmates and corrupt officers colluded to implicate him. A jury found Pruett guilty after prosecutors argued that he murdered Nagle after a dispute over a disciplinary write-up. Prosecutors told jurors that Pruett — who was already serving a life sentence for another murder he allegedly participated in with his father — killed Nagle because the inmate was upset that he had written him up for taking a sack lunch into the recreation yard at the McConnell Unit in Beeville.
That write-up is the subject of the DNA request. A palm print was found on the report that did not match Pruett. The Texas Department of Public Safety currently maintains a database of palm prints, but it did not exist in 2002.
"Since 2002, the science of touch DNA has developed, and prints left on pieces of evidence are routinely tested for DNA," Pruett's lawyer David Dow, who teaches at the University of Houston Law Center, wrote in the request for testing. "The State’s scientists that examined the disciplinary report did not utilize this technology, which was still in its infancy at
the time of trial."
Pruett believes that someone else tore up the disciplinary report and spread the pieces near Nagle’s body in an attempt to frame him for the murder, Dow wrote. He added that no guards witnessed the murder and that the inmates who testified about witnessing the murder may have been unreliable.
"Many of these inmates, when first questioned soon after Nagle’s murder, claimed to have no knowledge of the crime or that Pruett had nothing to do with the murder," Dow wrote, "but changed their story over the course of the next year, only after being promised favors or something of value by the prosecution."
Alfred Hernandez, a prosecutor for the Special Prosecution Unit, which focuses on prison crimes, told the jury at the 2002 trial that the theory that investigators framed Pruett was ridiculous. "Can you think of a reason we would pick on Robert Pruett if he didn't do it? I mean, we could have found people with a worse record," he said. "We could have found people who had much more dangerous looks instead of someone who looks like a little kid."
In a letter published online Pruett said that further investigation would lead more inmates who were at the McConnell Unit at the time to divulge more information about who killed Nagle, but that in the wake of the murder "everyone kept their mouths shut because the people responsible for Nagle’s death are extremely dangerous and would no doubt retaliate." Pruett has extensively written about the case in an autobiography.
John Gilmore, a lawyer who represented Pruett at the trial, said in an interview last month that he attempted to look for evidence of corruption but "kind of hit a dead end on that option."
"I don’t remember ever getting anything concrete we could get before a jury," he said.
Special prosecutor Mark Edwards said he had no comment on what he expects the DNA testing to produce, but the state is not objecting to the testing and is allowing a 60-day reprieve.
Nagle was the leader of the local prison workers' union, a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Shortly before his death, he stood on the Texas Capitol steps, leading a rally to ask lawmakers for a pay raise for his fellow prison employees, arguing that chronic understaffing was jeopardizing officer safety.
"When a guy is working by himself, this can happen," union director Brian Olsen told the Texas Tribune last month. He has been calling on the Texas Legislature to approve a pay raise that he hopes will decrease turnover among staff, which jeopardizes security.
Since the murder, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has instituted new safety measures, including body alarms, video surveillance systems and stab-resistant vests, and spokesman John Hurt said that all critical staffing positions are currently filled.
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