Robert Pruett is scheduled to be executed by the State of Texas Thursday. He has never had a chance to live outside a prison as an adult. Taking his life is a senseless wrong that shows how badly the justice system fails juveniles.
Mr. Pruett was 15 years old when he last saw the outside world, after being arrested as an accomplice to a murder committed by his own father. Now 38, having being convicted of a murder while incarcerated, he will be put to death. At a time when the Supreme Court has begun to recognize excessive punishments for juveniles as unjust, Mr. Pruett’s case shows how young lives can be destroyed by a justice system that refuses to give second chances.
Mr. Pruett’s father, Sam Pruett, spent much of Mr. Pruett’s early childhood in prison. Mr. Pruett and his three siblings were raised in various trailer parks by his mother, who he has said used drugs heavily and often struggled to feed the children. When his father returned from prison, things got worse: Mr. Pruett says his family sometimes had to move to flee the police, and that father introduced him to marijuana at age 7. By elementary school, he was using drugs regularly. By middle school, he was selling them.
And at age 16, he began a 99-year prison sentence, after his father stabbed a neighbor to death outside the family home, with Mr. Pruett present. The court found that Mr. Pruett was culpable under Texas’ infamous “law of parties,” whereby anyone who “solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid” a person who commits a crime is equally liable, no matter small his or her role. The extent to which Mr. Pruett assisted or encouraged his father is disputed, but even under the prosecution’s version of events, he did not kill the man.
At age 20, while still behind bars, Mr. Pruett was accused of killing the correctional officer Daniel Nagle. At 22, he was sentenced to death for the crime. He has maintained that he is innocent, and there is reason to believe he is telling the truth. The conviction relied largely on the testimony of inmate eyewitnesses, who are alleged to have received favorable deals in exchange for testimony. No physical evidence ever connected Mr. Pruett to the killing, and when he finally succeeded in having the murder weapon tested for DNA, nothing conclusive was found. Legally, that wasn’t enough to overturn Mr. Pruett’s conviction, but it should be deeply discomforting and raise serious doubts about whether he’s responsible for the crime.