Update: On August 11, Pruett's execution was stayed again while a state appeals court considered his argument for more DNA testing.
WEST LIVINGSTON, Texas—When most of the 242 death row inmates living at the Allan B. Polunsky prison look out their tiny, barred windows, they see razor wire, brick buildings, and death.
But Robert Pruett, who's scheduled to be executed in 146 days, has a different outlook on the bleak vista.
“Perspective is everything,” he told me earlier this month. “I don't look out the window and see all that. I look out and see those trees over there or the sun or the clouds, you know, or the birds or the little spider."
“There's beauty in everything I experience," he said. "I just try to stay present.”
For the past 16 years, Pruett, 36, has been living in a form of solitary confinement on Texas death row. He was convicted of murdering Texas prison guard Daniel Nagle in 1999. Pruett says he didn’t kill Nagle, and has maintained his innocence throughout his time in prison. And there’s no physical evidence that ties Pruett to the killing—only witness testimony from other inmates.
Now his lawyers are rushing to get new DNA testing approved on evidence that they hope can prove his innocence. It’s a race against time: His execution is scheduled for Aug. 23. In less than five months, he could become another name on the long list of inmates killed by the state of Texas, which has executed 536 people in the last 40 years, more than the next top six states combined.
The Polunsky unit is made up of squat, gray concrete buildings that look like ugly barges floating in a sea of barbed wire fencing. Guards on horses roam a grassy perimeter while others with sniper rifles watch from towers above.
On the sunny Wednesday afternoon that I visited him, the prison’s entrance was busy, with a stream of back-slapping guards and packages going in and out. One officer sliced open a stack of Amazon Prime parcels with a boxcutter. (Inmates can receive books.) A series of mechanized doors and fenced-in walkways stand between the prisoners who live here and freedom. One door has the sign “No hostages will exit here,” in English and Spanish.
Inside the grim visiting room, inmates squeeze into little metal booths to meet their guests. Thick glass separates them at all times—Pruett hasn’t been allowed to touch any of his family members or loved ones for 15 years. “Especially when they're going to kill you, you'd think they'd let you hug your mom," he said. "They're not going to let you do that."
He has close-cropped hair, a slight build, and a small goatee and beard. Tattoos snake up his forearms, into his white prison uniform, which is tied in the front. He speaks in a calm, easy-going manner, like someone who has thought a lot about his past and is used to telling strangers about it.
“I sometimes think that maybe if they do execute me and later it's revealed that I'm not the person who did it by some physical evidence being discovered … maybe that's what would end the death penalty,” he said. “I'm hoping I'm not going to be that guy.”
Pruett grew up poor on the ragged edges of the Houston sprawl, living with his family in a trailer park in the suburb of Channel View. His father, Howard, was in and out of prison, and Pruett started using drugs at a young age.
When Pruett was 15, his father stabbed and killed their next-door neighbor. Prosecutors said the younger Pruett, who had gotten in a fistfight with the neighbor earlier that night, was an accessory to murder. His father got life in prison; Pruett got 99 years. He was charged as an adult.
As a 15-year-old kid living in the general population of the McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas, which had a reputation for being one of the most dangerous institutions in the state, he had to fight to protect himself. He remembers seeing inmates stabbed.
“It was like a war zone in a lot of ways,” he said. “I think that there's a better way to help kids grow up than throwing them in prison when they're 15 years old.”
Pruett’s life changed again on Dec. 17, 1999, when corrections officer Daniel Nagle was found lying in his own blood in a prison office, stabbed to death with a metal shank. There was no security camera footage, and because the prison was severely understaffed, he was working alone at the time. But on top of Nagle’s body was a ripped-up discipline report naming Pruett. Earlier that day, Nagle had given Pruett a violation for eating a peanut butter sandwich in the prison hallway.
A few hours after the murder, with the prison on lockdown, officers moved Pruett into special custody and told him he was being charged with murder.
“I did have trouble with the guy, we had a confrontation, but it was minor,” Pruett said. According to him, he was nowhere close to the room where Nagle was killed.
No physical or DNA evidence was found that tied Pruett to the murder. None of his DNA or blood was found on Nagle, and none of Nagle’s blood or DNA was found on Pruett. The only physical evidence was a cut on Pruett’s hand that could have come from the shank; Pruett says he got it in a weightlifting accident that day.
At trial, prosecutors presented a series of inmates who claimed they saw Pruett commit the murder, some of whom offered conflicting testimony. All of them received early parole or reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony.
The defense theory is that Nagle was planning to reveal that prison guards were laundering drug money for inmates, and that someone involved in the scheme murdered him to silence him. A month after Nagle’s death, four guards at the prison were charged with felony bribery for the money laundering.
But a jury didn’t buy it, and Pruett was convicted of capital murder in April 2002.
At the time, DNA testing was far less advanced. In appeals and motions over the last 15 years, Pruett’s lawyers have been arguing for all the evidence to be re-tested using the latest standards. New testing conducted last year discovered DNA from an unknown person on the shank handle. The state says it was likely placed there sometime in the last 17 years: Surprisingly, the murder weapon has been sitting in a box in the county clerk’s office, and reporters for local TV news stations have been able to pick it up and handle it.
First, the defense team wants to test the guard's clothes from the day of the murder, which they believe might contain skin cells from the killer. Pruett’s DNA was not found on the clothes. The trial court judge denied the defense team's request; the team has appealed.
Pruett's lawyers have also turned to the evidence tag taped to the handle of the shank. On the sticky underside of that tag, DNA from the murderer’s skin cells is likely to be preserved. “That is the only area that is beyond dispute that hasn’t been tested, and that wouldn’t have been contaminated,” said Jeff Newberry, Pruett’s lawyer with the Texas Innocence Network, who has been working on the case for the past five years. “That is what we’re down to.”
That’s the absurdity of the death penalty: Whether this man lives or dies could come down to the sticky side of a 2-inch evidence tag.
I asked Pruett how it felt to have his life in the hands of a judge.
“I would just hope they stay open and not lose their sense of humanity,” he said. “Sometimes I think they see so many cases, they hear so many, that they just become desensitized to everything. There's real issues that could help exonerate me, that could show I didn't kill that man, and I'd just hope that they would look at that.”
For the past 16 years, Pruett has lived in a form of solitary confinement. It’s just him in the cell, 23 hours a day, but he can still talk with inmates in neighboring cells. He gets a single daily hour or recreation, in an open-ceilinged yard where inmates can run around and shoot baskets. Once, Pruett helped organize a competition among inmates that they called “Death Row Idol,” in which they sang songs or told jokes or read poetry. The least talented would be “voted off the gurney.”
Making friends can be painful, though. "They’ve killed almost 300 people since I’ve been here, a lot of them I grew close to, got to love and know,” he said.
Pruett spends hours reading, writing, and listening to music, sports, or the news on his radio. He sends letters back and forth with pen pals from around the world, as well as family members. He likes books about physics, religion, philosophy, and poetry.
So far, he has read religious texts from Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He’s fascinated by the connections he sees between the science and the mysticism. “When you start reading about quantum physics, it's like some of the stuff they're talking about is right here in my Bhagavad Gita,” he said.
Even though he’s locked away, Pruett is surprisingly connected to what’s going on in the world outside. He listens to NPR, and pays close attention to politics.
“I just can't believe that America would elect Donald Trump, I just don't think we want that guy," he said. "If we do, then we ain’t gotta worry about the death penalty, there might be some nuclear penalties.”
The recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was big news among his fellow death row inmates. Many are hoping that with a more liberal justice on the bench, the court might declare the death penalty unconstitutional, or at least give a more critical eye to how it is enforced. Last year, Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a dissent that they believe it is “highly likely" that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“When we heard Scalia had passed, a lot of my friends and a lot of the people on death row, their initial reaction was excitement,” Pruett said. “But I felt a little bad about that, and immediately I was like, 'I shouldn’t be excited, a man just died and he has a family.' Even though he was not a very nice man.”
The politics of the court aren’t abstract to Pruett. In fact, Scalia's last act as justice was to allow the execution of Gustavo Garcia, a fellow inmate at Polunsky—and a good friend of Pruett's.
In his time on death row, Pruett has been scheduled to die five separate times. Each time, his execution was set and then postponed, either for procedural reasons or because of orders by judges.
The most dramatic was on April 28, 2015, when he came within hours of being put to death.
After a morning of last visits with friends and family, officers loaded Pruett into the windowless “death van” and drove him to the nearby town of Huntsville, where all Texas executions take place. He was allowed to meet with spiritual counselors and eat a last meal. “It was just 10 feet between me and the death chamber,” he said.
With two and a half hours to go before the execution hour of 6 p.m., Pruett got a call from Newberry and his legal team. A judge had ordered that the execution be postponed to allow new DNA testing on all of the evidence in the case.
“I wanted to be the first to tell you, today is not the day you’re going to be executed,” Newberry told him, as other lawyers cheered in the background.
“I smiled a little bit,” Pruett recalled with a grin.
If death row inmates do get legal relief, it’s not unusual for it to come at the last minute. In a way, the suspense is itself an agonizing form of punishment.
“That day was the greatest challenge of my life, just to try to stay centered,” he said. “I think everything that I've learned before sort of built me up for that day.”
Throughout our discussion, I couldn’t help but wonder how Pruett managed to stay sane. Going into prison at age 15, living in a dangerous environment, and then spending the next 16 years in solitary confinement—and he still seems even-tempered and well-adjusted.
He stresses that he’s been able to keep himself together by learning to be present. “Ninety-nine percent of the people back here, they're living with the pain of their past, or they're worried about what's going to happen next,” he said. “I try to stay now, in the moment, and it really works for me.”
Part of that comes from his study of religion and quantum physics. He thinks about the idea of parallel universes, about how maybe, in another universe, there’s a Robert Pruett whose dad never committed murder, who never ended up in prison, who is out there traveling the world. But for someone who’s spent half his life behind bars (who hasn’t tasted freedom for 20 years), well, that’s not easy.
Lately, he’s been thinking more about reincarnation. “I believe we're all energy—it's in a constant state of transformation—and to me, death, it's not the end of that process,” he said. In another life, “I might be a golden eagle or something, that's what I’m hoping for.”
Of course, he would rather be free. If he gets out someday, he said, he would want to be a counselor, helping kids in the prison system. But he’s not focused on that future. When he knows his days are numbered, each second is worth much more.
Now that he’s within months of his execution date, he’s learned the value of being alive. “Everything that's happened to me since I was a kid, it's helped me get to a place where I can learn to love and appreciate life more,” he said.
Especially valuable are those rare chances he has to connect with nature: When he can watch the birds soar past his window. Or walk out into the recreation yard and breathe fresh air, feel a little rain on his face. Or, even better, when he gets to see the stars.
Usually, the huge stadium lights that are focused on the prison drown the night. But one evening a couple weeks ago was an exception. “The other night I was in the rec yard, and the lights were broken in there,” he said. “It was pitch black dark, so I was able to see the stars for a minute. I could see Orion's Belt and his shoulder. It was crazy.”
For a few minutes, he and another prisoner in the yard lie on the hard ground, staring up, letting their eyes slowly adjust to the darkness. He didn’t think about his past, or about his future. Instead, he let himself be filled with the beauty of the night sky.
“The other guy, he wanted to talk,” Pruett remembered, a wistful smile on his face. “I said hey, a moment of silence. Let's enjoy this. This ain't every day.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.