HUNTSVILLE, Texas – A Texas inmate scheduled to be executed for the stabbing death of a corrections officer more than 15 years ago had at least three appeals pending before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Robert Pruett would be the seventh inmate put to death this year in Texas. His lawyers argued that he was innocent of the December 1999 killing of 37-year-old Daniel Nagle at a South Texas prison.
One appeal states his attorneys anticipate advances in DNA testing eventually will allow examination of evidence that's too degraded to test because the state improperly stored it.
Other appeals challenge lower court rulings that appeals about the effectiveness of his earlier legal help had been filed too late, and that Pruett's trial jurors weren't fully aware of his dysfunctional childhood and of deals prosecutors made with other prison inmates to testify against Pruett.
Jefferson Clendenin, an assistant Texas attorney general, argued that the mitigating evidence was presented at his trial and Pruett had failed to show any of the evidence was previously unavailable.
Clendenin also argued that no state law covers the storage of evidence, and that the Texas Department of Public Safety guidelines weren't published until 2012, a decade after Pruett's trial. Halting Pruett's punishment now for a potential advancement in DNA technology would allow any death row inmate to obtain an indefinite stay of execution by arguing "that science at some unknown point in the future might cast doubt on his conviction," Clendenin told the Supreme Court in a filing Tuesday.
Pruett, now 35, was imprisoned at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice McConnell Unit when he got into a fatal fight with Nagle over a peanut butter sandwich.
Evidence showed Pruett wanted to take his bag lunch into a recreation yard, but this was against the rules, so Nagle wrote a disciplinary report. Prosecutors said this angered Pruett who stabbed Nagle with a 7-inch-long sharpened metal rod.
Pruett said Nagle tore up the disciplinary report containing his name and that he was in a gym when he found out the officer had been killed.
DNA tests requested by Pruett's lawyers on pieces of the report found scattered around Nagle's body were inconclusive.
Pruett insisted Nagle could have been killed by other inmates or prison officers.
"I never killed nobody in my life," Pruett told jurors at his 2002 trial in Corpus Christi.
Pruett was already serving a 99-year sentence for his part in the 1995 slaying of a neighbor in Channelview, east of Houston. His father is serving life in prison in the killing and his brother has a 40-year sentence.
If Pruett's execution occurs, Texas prison officials will be left with enough pentobarbital for one more lethal injection — set for early next month. Other executions also are scheduled, meaning the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will have to replenish its supply of the increasingly difficult-to-obtain sedative for execution use or find a substitute drug to replace it.
Texas carries out capital punishment more than any other state.