The highest criminal court in Texas stayed the execution of death row inmate Robert Pruett on Thursday, essentially saying it needed more time to review Pruett's claims about DNA evidence in his case.
"Upon review, we have determined that appellant’s execution should be stayed pending further order of this Court," the justices of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote in their order.
Pruett was scheduled to be executed in 12 days, on August 23. The decision means the execution date will almost surely be called off, although the court could still decide to allow it to go forward in the next two weeks.
Now 33, Pruett has been in prison since age 15. He was sentenced to death for the murder of a prison guard in 1999, when he was 20. The conviction was based on testimony from witnesses who got reduced sentences in prison, and no physical evidence tied Pruett to the murder. He's maintained his innocence since.
While a trial court ordered the DNA testing of all the evidence in the case last year, there are still key pieces of evidence that haven't been tested with the latest technology—including the clothes of the victim, which could hold skin cells of the killer, and the handle of the murder shank that has been kept clean of contamination by the evidence tag covering it. The appeals court stayed his execution while considering Pruett's argument that new evidence testing could acquit him.
At the same time, the court dismissed two other motions made by Pruett's lawyers arguing that the prosecution in the case concealed deals they made with witnesses from the jury and used false forensic science testimony. Jeff Newberry, Pruett's lawyer, told me they could still pursue those lines of argument in future appeals to federal court if need be. Judge Elsa Alcala—who has strongly criticized the state's use of the death penalty in the past—dissented in the court's dismissal of Pruett's other claims, but did not write an opinion explaining her dissent.
Pruett will likely be told about his stay of execution tonight or tomorrow. When I interviewed him earlier this year, he said that he had learned to love life and found meaning in it, even though he's been in solitary confinement for the past 16 years:
"I'm happy," Newberry said. "Anytime you can make an execution date probably go away, that’s a big development."
The next inmate scheduled to die in the state is Jeff Wood, whose execution is currently set for August 24. Wood was convicted of participating in a robbery and murder in 1996—even though he didn't actually pull the trigger and was sitting in a truck outside the gas station where the murder took place.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.