The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled against a death row inmate who claims he was framed in the 1999 murder of a prison guard. The ruling could allow Bee County to set his fourth execution date in the last two years.
Robert Pruett, 37, has consistently maintained his innocence in the murder of Daniel Nagle, and for the last several years has worked to have DNA testing prove his innocence. But the trial court has twice tested DNA evidence in the case and twice found inconclusive results, ruling that the tests wouldn’t have had any effect on his conviction and sentence had they been available during his 2002 trial, according to Wednesday’s Court of Criminal Appeals opinion.
Pruett was serving a life sentence for murder in Beeville when Nagle was murdered in December 1999, according to court records. Nagle was found stabbed, unresponsive in a pool of his own blood next to a sharpened metal rod and a shredded disciplinary report Nagle filed against Pruett. Pruett says he was framed for the murder, that he threw the report at Nagle but didn’t hurt him.
A Bee County jury sentenced Pruett to death in 2002 for Nagle’s murder.
In 2013, Pruett began requesting DNA testing to clear his name. Results tested that year were inconclusive, and the courts ruled against him, according to the opinion. Pruett was then given an April 2015 execution date.
On the day of his execution, his attorney filed another appeal, asking for further DNA testing, this time on the tape that covered the metal rod identified as the murder weapon and the rod itself. A state district judge halted the execution to run the tests, even though he was skeptical of Pruett’s motives.
"The court has no doubt the request for the proposed DNA testing was made to delay the execution of sentence," Judge Bert Richardson wrote. "However, at this point, although such delay tactics appear to be unreasonable, it is not clear that they, in fact, are unreasonable. Although unlikely, it is not impossible to conceive that there could be exculpatory results."
Again, the court found no DNA other than Nagle’s, except for an unknown female profile found on the metal rod — which wasn’t found in original testing in 2000. An analyst determined the weapon was contaminated after the murder (the rod has been handled by attorneys and even journalists).
Because the testing didn’t provide evidence for or against Pruett, the trial court again ruled the results would have had no effect on his original conviction or sentence, and set another execution date for Pruett, in April 2016. The date was rescheduled to August, and the Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay in the weeks before his scheduled death to further examine the trial court’s ruling.
On Wednesday, the highest criminal appeals court in Texas issued its ruling, upholding the trial court’s findings. Jeff Newberry, Pruett’s lawyer, said he would “definitely" seek relief in a federal court. Pruett could appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court or file another appeal in federal court. In the meantime, Bee County may set another execution date.
Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Elsa Alcala, known for her lengthy dissents in death penalty cases, wrote a concurring opinion. She said she agrees with the court that the DNA evidence wouldn’t have affected Pruett’s case, but that there are other “significant” issues with his conviction that should be reopened. This includes a witness who claimed she could match the tape around the weapon to tape in the prison shop, what Alcala referred to as “junk science.”
“The record suggests that appellant was convicted at his 2002 trial primarily on evidence of his motive to harm the victim, testimony of inmate-witnesses, and junk science, but without any physical evidence directly establishing appellant’s guilt,” Alcala wrote, adding that her court has never allowed Pruett a hearing to address any of those issues.
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