Days from execution, man convicted in prison guard's murder insists on innocence
A man convicted in the 1999 murder of a Texas prison guard faces execution Thursday for the sixth time in a case where DNA testing has taken center stage.
Robert Pruett was sentenced to death in the stabbing of Daniel Nagle, a 37-year-old guard at a prison in Beeville. Pruett was a 20-year-old inmate serving a 99-year sentence at the time for being an accomplice in a murder committed by his father when he was 15.
Nagle was found lying in a pool of blood, stabbed repeatedly with a makeshift knife next to a torn up disciplinary report he had written on Pruett, according to court records. The prosecution argued that Pruett killed Nagle in retaliation for the report, and the jury agreed, but Pruett has consistently denied his involvement in the crime. He said he was framed by corrupt guards and inmates, and his lawyers have argued against the testimony used at trial.
“The only supposed eyewitness testimony came from inmate informants. Such so-called snitch testimony is notoriously unreliable,” wrote attorney David Dow in Pruett’s latest filing to a federal appellate court.
For years, he has sought multiple rounds of DNA testing on clothes, the weapon and the torn-up report in an attempt to prove his innocence. It has saved him from execution multiple times since 2013.
But in April, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals finally ruled that the results of two rounds of DNA testing were inconclusive and therefore would not have changed the result of his conviction. A new execution date was set for Oct. 12.
“You’ve got to have faith in your juries and the many courts that have scrutinized the evidence and the claims here, and I just don’t see any room for there being a claim of innocence here,” said Jack Choate, executive director of the Special Prosecution Unit, which prosecutes Texas prison crimes.
Still, Pruett is fighting.
The Court of Criminal Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court denied his latest claims in state court last week, but he has also sued in federal court, claiming recent refusals by the trial court and prosecution to proceed with further DNA testing violates his due process rights.
The DNA evidence that was tested and deemed inconclusive by Texas’ high appellate court needs more examination, Pruett argues in court filings. The testing looked primarily at the murder weapon, where a partial female profile had been found in the latest examination.
Pruett argues that the court should further investigate the profile, to see if it could identify a culprit, but the state argued the weapon was likely contaminated by people on the defense team and journalists who have handled it without gloves since the trial. The court denied further testing.
“Even if there were contamination, that conclusion would only demonstrate that the State had violated another provision of state law by failing to ensure the weapon is properly preserved,” Dow wrote to the court.
Pruett’s latest federal appeal was rejected by the appellate court Friday, but he could still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Choate said that he expects the execution to proceed.
“I would be surprised to see the courts take a different position this late in the game,” he said.