It is very unsettling to have a conversation with someone for the first time, just before they are about to be killed. A few weeks ago, I tried to get in touch with a man named Robert Pruett. A friend of his wrote back with an address, adding: “You might not want to lose too much time.” She told me that this upcoming Thursday evening, the 12th, Robert is scheduled to be executed by the State of Texas. I had known that Robert was on Death Row. I hadn’t realized he had about a month left on Earth.
I wanted to talk to Robert because for three years, I have been thinking about him. In 2014, I was prowling around one of the more depressing parts of the internet—a webpage with the life stories of Death Row inmates—and I happened across a link to a document labeled, simply, Robert Pruett’s Autobiography. It had nine chapters, and a preface. I intended to skim over it lightly, arrogantly presuming I pretty much knew the trajectory of prison memoirs. Instead, I spent two days completely engrossed. I’d never read anything like it.
First, here are a few undisputed facts about Robert Pruett. He is 38 years old, and has spent every single day of his life in prison since the age of 15. The crime for which he was convicted at that age—the murder of a neighbor—was in fact committed by Robert’s father, Sam Pruett. The prosecution’s theory was that, even though the senior Pruett actually stabbed the victim, Robert was present and liable as an accomplice. At an age when many children have just finished middle school, Robert was given a 99-year sentence in the Texas penitentiary. Five years later, at the age of 20, Robert was accused of killing a correctional officer, Daniel Nagle, who had given Robert a disciplinary infraction for eating a sandwich in the hallway. While no physical evidence ever connected Robert to the killing, inmate-witnesses said they had seen the crime, and the torn-up disciplinary report was found next to Nagle’s body.
Let me set aside, just for the moment, questions about Robert’s innocence or guilt in the killing of Daniel Nagle. First, I’d like to talk about his life. I’d like to talk about his book, and the reason I’ve spent three years thinking about it.
One reason I couldn’t stop reading Robert’s writing is that he is deeply smart and reflective. His autobiography is more than just the facts of a prisoner’s life. It is an effort by a man, incarcerated since before he could legally drive a car, to figure out how it all happened, to examine and collect his memories and figure out whether things could have been different. Robert is trying to deal honestly with the questions of nature, nurture, and individual choice: how much of his life was a result of the accident of his birth, and how much was result of his decisions? He knows, he says, that in his youth he did terrible things: stealing, fighting, using drugs. But when someone ends up in prison as a teenager for a crime committed by his father, it’s hard to deny that things would have been very different if the same child had been raised by different parents.
Robert begins with the quote from Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” To make his life worth living, Robert wants to examine it, as thoroughly as he can. He begins:
I often lie awake during the wee hours of the morning, staring at cracks in a white, concrete ceiling, pondering my life. Every crevice inspires a thought, every thought a memory; thus, an introspective journey begins, guiding me through scenes resembling an S.E. Hinton novel. From the dilapidated trailer parks of Houston to the Mayberry-like streets of Vidor, waves of memories come washing over me like the rising morning tide: riding a bicycle for the first time, jumping off a bridge into the river, playing a guitar, that first kiss, stealing candy from a store, laughing with my family, crying alone in a prison cell….As I replay clips from the past a question that has intrigued me for years resurfaces: Why are we the way we are? What causes human behavior? … I believe we can understand ourselves and what influences us through an introspective process that includes an examination of our past experiences and the behavioral patterns in our families. Ultimately, we make our own choices in life, but it helps to know why we are inclined or predisposed to certain types of behavior.
To begin to figure out how his background made him, Robert starts by profiling his parents. His father, Sam, had criminal tendencies from a young age, and was told by his family—who beat him regularly—that he was a “demon child.” Robert says his father was “the most violent man I have ever met,” a habitual criminal who pulled a knife on anyone who angered him. Robert’s mother and father married young, and soon after Robert was born his father was sent to prison after a cross-country string of robberies, leaving his mother alone to raise three children.
Robert tries to piece together everything he can remember about his early years. He starts:
Many of my earliest memories are blurry and discontinuous: rolling around on a thick carpet in a dimly lit room, Mom rubbing my legs to alleviate excruciating muscle spasms, gasping for air in the midst of an asthma attack, sitting on my mother’s lap in a crowded room (probably a hospital waiting room or the welfare ofﬁce)… Pressing my face against a warm car, lying on a soft couch, staring at a picture on a wall depicting dogs playing pool, my siblings as children — these are the images that ﬂash through my mind when I rewind the hands of time. Trying to recollect and reconstruct some of these early events is like gazing through a windshield on a foggy day.
Soon, as he moves forward in time, things grow darker quickly. Robert’s mother struggles to pay the bills, and they often cannot afford to eat more that one meal a day. Robert recalls opening the fridge to find nothing but a jar of jelly, and making a meal out of it. It was a life of transience: “the scenery changed more often than the weather back then. From trailer parks to apartments, Mom moved us to places conducive to our survival.” Sometimes the children were dependent on their mother’s boyfriends for subsistence:
Unfortunately, the few men that I remember her being with were scumbags. One man she was with was named James, sometimes called Bo. He was an angry soul who openly detested my brother and me. No matter how hard we tried, we could do no right in James‘ eyes. He kicked Steven in the groin once, showing that he had no compunction about using his extremities to “discipline” us. When I was about ﬁve years old, I left some toys on the living room ﬂoor and he spiked me like a football, then commenced to punch. Exhibiting obstinacy early on, I screamed through tears, “Wait until my dad gets home, he’ll kick your ass!” He hit me again and pointed at me.
“Your daddy’s a punk and he’s getting ass fucked right now. Don’t you know what happens in prison?”… My brother and I slept in the same room and we stayed up many nights talking about James and how much we wished our real dad would come home. “Bubba, when dad gets home will he kick that punk’s butt?”
“Yeah, our dad is one tough dude,” he assured me.
“I can’t wait until he comes home.”
After a moment of silence I asked, “Who can beat up our dad?”
“The Incredible Hulk.”
“Who can beat up the Incredible Hulk?”
“He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe!”
“Who can beat up He-Man?”
Deepening his voice he roared, “Almighty God!”
I was impressed, but I pressed on, “Who can beat up God?”
He placed me in a headlock and exclaimed, “Only I!”
We wrestled around until we heard our mother warn us to keep it down. We had our own way of dealing with problems.
My mother sometimes talked about our father. She spoke of him with reverence, affectionately describing him and telling my siblings and me stories about him. Most of this was for my beneﬁt because they knew him, but they enjoyed our moments together and listened attentively. I grew to love the man my mother talked about and I longed for him to return home. “When will dad be home, Momma?”
“When’s ‘pretty soon?‘ “
“It’s not too far away.”
My five-year-old mind conceptualized “pretty soon” as being a time of the year, like after Christmas or before Easter. I wasn’t sure when it was, but I knew that all would be righted in the world “pretty soon.”
When Robert is seven, his father is finally released from prison. Robert recalls meeting him for the first time:
At the airport I stood in between Mom and Steven as passengers exited the plane. I hadn’t seen a picture of my father, so as I studied each face, I was relying on Mom’s description: an older man with a bald head An elderly man ﬁtting that description appeared walking with a cane. “Is that him?!”
They both laughed and Mom said, “I sure hope not.”
A moment later a man emerged with a thick ZZ Top beard and a bald head, a cup in his hand. He stopped in his tracks when his eyes rested on us and he stared for a second. Tears began to stream down his wrinkled face. He tossed his cup into a trashcan and closed the distance separating us in long strides. He and my mother embraced, then she waved Steven and me closer so the four of us could huddle. In the midst of one of the most loving and memorable moments of my life, I cried and thought, I have a father.
But the return of Robert’s father also brings trouble. Sam Pruett is impulsive and violent. He doesn’t hesitate to whip Robert with a belt for misbehaving. The family moves frequently, sometimes because of lost jobs and sometimes because Sam is fleeing the law after stabbing someone.
Robert’s memoirs contain plenty of experiences typical of a Texan childhood in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He scrounges quarters to play Super Mario Brothers at the arcade. He tries his first Whatchamacallit bar, and finds it transcendently delicious. He catches tadpoles and crawfish in a drainage ditch, gets lost in the forest with his dog. When he visits a wealthy relative, he gets to ride a horse. With his friends, he discovers a remote pond, where they swim every afternoon until realizing it is infested with water moccasins. Robert admits that he liked Vanilla Ice’s music, but insists that everyone did back then and that anyone who denies it is a liar. He rides bikes, climbs trees, flirts with girls, and goofs around. (He also meets his grandmother, who hisses at him and calls him Satan.)
Robert’s father and brother rarely hold down jobs for long, and the jobs they do get are low-paid; brother Steven works digging holes at a salvage yard, and at one point, his father’s job is to sleep in a bar to make sure it isn’t burglarized, an assignment for which he is paid largely in beer. But the family periodically enters the tree-trimming business together, a collective enterprise Robert looks back on fondly:
When I close my eyes I can still see my brother John — before he got too fat—up in a tree, yelling down instructions to the ground hands, systematically bringing a tree down piece-by-piece. I can still see Junior in his cutoff shorts and long-sleeved button-down shirt holding my brother’s rope because,“Well, someone’s gotta hold the fucking rope, smart ass!” (Yeah, but holding the rope was all his lazy ass ever did!) I remember rolling logs and hauling limbs to the truck and trailer, unloading and loading them. I can still smell freshly-cut pine and oak trees mixed with chainsaw smoke and oil gas. I can still hear the buzzing of saws or a tree cracking as it falls.
I grew stronger lifting logs and dragging bush, chopping and stacking wood, loading and unloading debris, [but] what I was best at was landing jobs. My dad bragged that I was the best salesman he had. Being just a kid but very well-spoken and charismatic, I had many homeowners eating out of my palm after delivering my sales pitch. I’d ring a doorbell to a house with a dead tree. “Excuse me, I’m Robert Pruett with Pioneer Trees.” I’d extend my hand for them to shake. “I noticed that you have a dead and rotting tree threatening your nice home here. Would you care to have a free estimate for a full removal and haul off?” Potential customers often thought I was cute and more often than not I got them to commit to paying for tree work. (As good as we were, sometimes accidents happened. We’ve dropped logs on doghouses, swimming pool water pumps and fences, and an occasional branch busted a window.)
The innocence doesn’t last, though. For every moment of boyish adventure and father-son wood-chopping, there is a corresponding scene of violence or drug use. Robert gets high for the first time at age 5, when a stranger encourages him to sniff gasoline from a tractor. His parents both smoke pot constantly, and let him join in when he is still in elementary school. (Though they strictly forbid tobacco.) Robert’s father takes him hitch-hiking across Texas to deliver a suitcase full of marijuana, on the theory that a man with a child will never be suspected of drug trafficking. Even Robert’s most positive memories are often colored by the presence of drugs: he fondly recalls duetting with his dad on a rendition of Cheech and Chong’s “Up In Smoke.”
Many events are disturbing. Robert’s brother, Steven, is molested by a family member and a camp counselor. His mentally-challenged sister is raped and CPS places her in a foster home. She enters a romantic relationship with a cousin, with whom she huffs paint and becomes addicted to cocaine, and has her own children taken away from her. Various relatives are always in and out of jail, and seemingly everyone around Robert is a heavy drug user. The family gets evicted from numerous trailer parks and motels, often because Robert has broken something or gotten in a fight. Robert’s father is constantly violent. He threatens to kill the repo man who takes their truck. When Robert gloats after defeating him at a Nintendo game, he throws the controller and shouts “get your goddamn ass out of here before I beat you to death, boy!” He hits Robert’s mother in an argument over money. Robert insists throughout that his father loved the family dearly, but was incapable of controlling his rage.
Robert tells us that he was once a promising student, and from the quality of his writing it’s easy to believe him. He remembers his pride when a teacher praised his counting skills and moved him up to the advanced class. But by a very young age, Robert is becoming like his father. He gets into fights. He smokes pot constantly, even as a preteen. He begins to steal things, first shoplifting candy bars and porno magazines, before moving on to bikes and money. Robert’s father hits him whenever he is caught stealing, but mostly seems upset that Robert has allowed himself to get found out, and thereby caused trouble for the family. “Don’t shit in your own backyard,” he tells Robert, which Robert interprets to mean that he should never steal from people who live nearby.
School becomes a disaster. When a teacher discovers that Robert is high, he is sent home, where his mother pretends to be upset. Soon, he is expelled from the 7th grade, and sent to an alternative school, where he continues to get smoke weed and steal things. Bad habits become worse habits: his older brother Steven allows him to try cocaine, which he soon begins using regularly. He goes from using drugs to selling drugs, and thinks nothing of burglarizing a neighbor’s trailer.
Finally come the events that will end Robert’s childhood and his life outside. It is 1995. Robert and two friends steal his friend’s dad’s Ford Granada, break into a house, and take television sets, VCRs, and a dozen rifles from a gun rack. They are spotted by the homeowner, and chased back to their trailer park. The police arrive, and Robert is put in handcuffs and taken away.
Robert manages to receive probation. But he is still an angry young man, addicted to drugs. When he arrives back at the trailer park, he believes a neighbor named Ray has secreted away some of the rifles from the burglary. Confronted, Ray denies it. Robert rants to his father about Ray. Sam Pruett becomes enraged on his son’s behalf. When Ray walks through the park at night looking for a lost dog, loudly swearing, Robert mistakenly believes Ray is shouting at him, and tells his father the family is being disrespected. The Pruetts approach Ray and an argument escalates into a fight. As he has done many times before, Sam Pruett suddenly draws a knife and fatally stabs Ray.
All three Pruetts, Sam, Steven, and Robert, are arrested. Not yet 16, Robert finds himself charged with murder. At the Juvenile Detention Center, he has a breakdown:
I begin to panic. I bang on the door [over and over] and a chief returns with the doctor. The doctor is stem with me, orders me to stop banging and calm down or I’ll remain on observation. I work myself into a frenzy and become hysterical. “Please! You don’t understand! I’m not supposed to be here! They made a mistake! Please, just let me go home! I can’t stand it in here anymore! I’m only 15! Please! Let me go!!” Over the next few days I remain in my room on observation, screaming and sobbing all day, begging to be released, unable to fathom my situation. The doctor and chiefs say it’s out of their hands… I feel so frightened, so sad, so alone. The walls feel like they are closing in on me, I wheeze until I start hyperventilating, unbothered by the snot and tears running down my face. I curl into the fetal position in the corner of my room and moan for hours and hours, beg God to have mercy on me and let me out. I repeatedly tell Him how sorry I am for being such a bad kid. I think about how stupid I have been and punch myself in the head and face, then bang my head on the floor until a chief catches me. Soon my room is ﬁlled with chiefs and the doctor. I’m handcuffed to the bunk. Just as they begin to leave I ram my head into the bunk and they quickly restrain me until a football helmet is strapped to my head. The doctor promises I’ll remain there until I calm down. I curse him and the chiefs and lose all control, scream and thrash about violently until I feel the sting of a needle prick my backside. Darkness overtakes me.
Soon, Robert calms down, and begins to introspect:
Alone in my room, facing charges of murder and the fear of an unknown future, I reﬂected on my past. I thought about all the people I had hurt in my life. How did a homeowner feel when he returned home to ﬁnd his place violated and his possessions stolen by me and my friends? I had no right to take from people who had worked hard for what they had. I had no right to take from anyone. I realized that the drugs and my addiction to the fast life clouded my judgment, rendered me extremely selﬁsh and didn’t allow me to empathize with the people I had robbed or hurt with my behavior. I was ashamed of myself, the person I’d been, and I desperately wanted to change. I didn’t want to hurt or steal from people anymore. I was beginning to understand that stealing and robbing wasn’t just wrong because you’d go to jail, but more importantly, it was wrong because it hurt innocent people. Away from all the negative inﬂuences and off of drugs for the ﬁrst time in years, my conscience was awakening… During that ﬁrst week, while I was freaking out, I thought of my father killing Ray and mumbled incoherent prayers for Ray and his family. I begged Jesus to forgive me for being the catalyst that brought it all about.
It is too late, however. Robert and his father are given 99-year sentences, while Steven receives 40 years. Robert is transferred from the juvenile facility to the penitentiary, along with several other children who have been certified as adults:
The bars and wire mesh cages, along with the angry and aggressive jailers, cast an immediate oppressive and dismal ambience. A tall and muscle-bound black jailer set the tone for us. “You boys are not in daycare anymore. You will follow orders here and conduct yourselves like men, ‘cause that’s what the courts say you is, and if you give me or any of my deputies problems we will not hesitate to beat your ass and make your life miserable.” If that speech didn’t convince us, the bloody beatdown that another deputy unleashed on a mouthy trustee a few hours later certainly did. We talked amongst ourselves in the ﬁrst holdover and tried to exude courage and conﬁdence, but inside we were all trembling.
As a small 16-year-old in a prison full of brawny adult convicts, he faces immediate threats of predatory sexual violence. Robert recalls arriving at the prison, wondering when the violence would come. It did not take long:
The bright South Texas sun illuminated the razor-wired fences and made them sparkle as we pulled into the Garza West compound. The Garza West and East Units are built on the old Chase ﬁeld Air Force base. Like all TDCJ units, guard towers surrounded the double fences. The inmates all wore white; the guards wear grey…. Each dorm had two large fans on either side of it, but they only circulate the extreme heat and humidity, making it feel like an oven inside. As soon as I stepped through the door I felt all eyes on me, checking out the ‘new boots.’ Grown men of every race, but mostly black and Hispanic, were playing dominos and chess, watching TV and exercising…. My heart raced and sweat poured from every pore as I carried my mattress and property to my bunk….Regardless of what you have ever heard, read about or seen on TV, nothing can prepare you for what it’s really like inside prison. All of my father’s war stories, as well as everything the deputies and older inmates from the county jail had said, had me on edge and mentally prepared to ﬁght. I knew it was coming, just didn’t know when, where and who….Once the guard did a channel check on the TV and left the dorm, a young black dude who’d watched every move made since I entered the building welcomed me to prison with an ultimatum: “Say, White boy. Watcha gone do? Fight, fuck or bust a $60?” Translation: I had the choice to ﬁght him, let him have sex with me or pay him commissary for protection.
Because he is young, Robert has to quickly develop his fighting abilities to avoid being raped. Every day the threat of violence hangs over him. Correctional officers are physically abusive and inmates must perform intensely physically demanding labor all day in the heat. Faced with the knowledge that he will likely never see the outside world again, he lapses into anger and despair:
My hatred for the system grew exponentially. It burned me up inside that they, the judges, prosecutors and politicians, could do what they had done to kids like me. Every order from a guard or rule I had to obey grated on my nerves. When I was called out into the fields I felt like a slave, that they were rubbing salt into my wounds, making me pound on dirt in the blazing South Texas sun. Every time a guard told me to shave, tuck my shirt in, or gave me any other order, I felt like they were slapping me in the face. Prison life began to gnaw at my psyche, wear me down and made me abhor waking up each morning.
I was dying inside.
Soon, Robert becomes suicidal and slashes his wrists. The attempt fails, and only makes his life worse: his scars are taken as a sign of vulnerability, and he covers his arms in tattoos to avoid revealing them to potential predators. As he finds himself engaged in fight after fight, trying to avoid showing weakness, he realizes that he seems to be following a path that was set for him a generation ago:
Violence is the order of the day in prison. Many of us were conditioned to respond aggressively to any perceived threat or disrespect. My father was a very violent man from decades of living that type of life. So much so that he carried it to the freeworld, reacted violently when he felt ‘contested.’ He had an edge about him that frightened me as a boy and I often wondered why he was so explosive and crazy. Then I came to prison and experienced this environment myself and I understood him a little better, what made him that way. Sometime around the middle part of 1999 I had a startling revelation: I was becoming my father. Part of me was proud that I commanded a great deal of respect amongst the convicts, that most knew I’d not only ﬁght when forced, but I was a force to be reckoned with. It had become instinctive almost for me to lash out at dudes who crossed my boundaries. Violation of my personal space was unacceptable and it unleashed the monster in me. That monster was the only thing the predators seemed to respect. The moment I realized I was becoming my father, depression crept in. [He was] one mean sonofabitch. I didn’t want to be that way; it brought tears just thinking about it, ﬁnally comprehending the inadvertent psychological conditioning that occurs in prison and its effect on me. Yet, to renounce violence in here is equivalent to losing all respect. Losing respect means to concede to the whims of the predators.
Robert’s mind develops in different directions. He becomes a Christian, then begins to question the justifications for faith. Influenced by the strong current of white supremacy in prison, he becomes a racist, reading Mein Kampf and getting a swastika tattoo to intimidate people, before realizing how horrifying the ideology is and renouncing it:
I didn’t realize it back then, but all of my anger and hate regarding race was misdirected and ignorant. I was so pissed off at the system for throwing me away that I needed somewhere to focus my negative energy. As the years passed I opened my eyes and matured, slowly growing out of that convoluted ideology on race. Today, I realize that there is no pure race; we all share DNA and we all sprang from the same source…. I understand that more often than not socioeconomic factors play the largest role in how people are treated. The rich and famous have it made; while the poor outcasts from both the ghetto and trailer park have it rough. My hope is that as society evolves, we’ll erase the things that separate and divide us such as race and class.
After an early life spent skipping school and doing drugs, Robert takes as many classes as he can, learning whatever he can about human beings in order to understand himself better:
Psychology 101 was one of my favorite classes. Human behavior intrigued me. After taking the class I read books on the pioneers of psychology like William Wundt, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, CJ Watson and BF Skinner. I then delved into books on population biology, behavioral genetics, sociology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology and anything related to behavioral sciences. I wanted to understand the general human psyche so I could better understand myself, where I came from, how I became the person I was and how I could become better….I began to grasp how growing up in poverty affected my behavior… I learned how some traits are genetically transferred, such as aggression and addictive personality disorder, but that genes don’t issue tyrannical commands; we can learn to control our genetic impulses and alter our predispositions with the right conditioning. Psychology taught me so much about the human condition, our childhood traumas and complexes that need to be resolved, and it truly helped me understand why I behaved the way I did prior to my arrest. I had put myself, my ego, above everyone else. The environment I was raised in was conducive to my criminality. I used drugs to numb my mind and ease the burden of my existence, then became addicted and committed crimes to feed the destructive cycle that was my life. Obviously, my parents were ill-equipped and had no clue about child development as they let me get high with them. Yet, psychology helped me better understand them, their pasts and why they had such a hard go of it.
And yet, though Robert studies hard, he continues to feel more and more hopeless. He is frequently denied access to prison courses because of disciplinary infractions. His fellow inmates are impressed with all of his new knowledge, but one of them teases him about how all the learning will “come in handy” during 99 years of working in fields. Robert laughs, yet realizes just how sad he is to think that he literally has no opportunity to get out of his situation, that he will very likely die in prison. All the while, even as he grows mentally, physically he is stuck in a world of confinement, violence, and hopelessness. Worse, the combination of the “tough” persona he has developed to survive as a teen among adults and the aggressiveness inherited from his father have turned him into an impulsive, high-strung, sometimes brutal person.
In 1999, age 20, Robert is accused of killing a correctional officer who writes him up for eating a sandwich in the wrong place. The officer, Daniel Nagle, is found stabbed, next to Robert’s shredded disciplinary report. Other inmates, who receive deals in exchange for their testimony, claim to have heard Robert confess. A cut on Robert’s hand, which he claims to have received in a weightlifting accident, is presented as further evidence. Robert is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Robert’s case goes through a series of appeals, centering around the lack of any forensic evidence connecting Robert to the murder weapon, and he is given half-a-dozen stays of execution. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Robert’s final request for a stay.
Ironically, in his autobiography, Robert says that life among the condemned men was far more peaceable and tolerable than life in the general population had been. Perhaps because of their shared fate, and a corresponding recognition of the futility of petty conflict, the residents of Polunsky Unit managed to forge a strong bond and amuse themselves with gallows humor:
One of the greatest times of my entire life were spent right here on the row, hanging out with Tiny, Jeff Prible, Bob Dylan, Richard “Psycho” Cobb, Boxcar, Pennywise, Bandit, Ghost and Third….We practically lived together as we stayed hooked up on the “mics” 24/7 (we discovered how to talk to each other through our radios on the “mics”). We listened to sports and music together, shared our deepest thoughts, darkest fears and all of the good and bad times of our lives. We played games like Risk, Monopoly, chess, checkers, trivia, hang-man and derivatives of them all. We went on mental excursions together, turning out our lights and closing our eyes as we went out hunting, ﬁshing, skateboarding, swimming, ﬁghting in wars, and even heading out to the club to meet chicks. We invented a game called Death Row Idol in which we competed with songs, poetry, jokes, skits, and stories, then we all casted our votes to see who’d be voted off of the gurney. We laughed and cried together, sharing intimate memories, regrets, hopes and dreams. I grew to love those guys like brothers. Sadly, only Jeff fought his conviction. The rest of us had no hope of surviving this experience, so we just tried to enjoy our moments together until that fateful day arrives. Unfortunately, the order of the day here is death. The state has relentlessly snatched away so many. Tiny was killed on June 16, 2011… they got Kevin and Billy in May 2010… Woody seemed happy to go in September of 2007… Budders also high—stepped it outta here in September of 2011… Wolf reminded me that “as long as there’s life there’s hope” before he was taken in May of 2005 with Chi-Town… A few months before they killed Mark Stroman, who got here around the same time I did, he told me they’d killed over 200 people since we drove up. Images of these dudes and countless others flash through my mind at times; I can hear them laughing, remember things they did and said, and more often than not it just seems senseless that the state killed them.
* * * *
This takes us up to the present day, as Robert still sits on Death Row, his appeals exhausted, seventy-two hours left before his life will be ended by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, at 6p.m. on Thursday, with a fatal dose of pentobarbital.
Robert’s autobiography is an incredibly difficult book to read. First, it is long, since it contains literally every memory Robert can think of from ages 0 to 30, though that makes it all the more remarkable as a document of his development. Second, it is disturbing: from its very first pages it is full of violence and cruelty, and Robert goes from childhood to premature adulthood, a good deal of that violence is perpetrated by Robert himself. But the greatest difficulty is that of reliability: how does the reader know that Robert is telling the truth? In the book, Robert strongly insists that he is innocent of the murder that he is about to be put to death for. If we believe him, then a horrific injustice is about to occur in the State of Texas. But if we don’t believe him, what then? The book is powerful in part because its narrator feels so honest: he wants to sincerely introspect about his life and the factors that caused it to unfold the way it did. He doesn’t hesitate to take full responsibility for doing a number of truly horrible things: burglarizing houses, hitting people, stealing drugs, stealing guns, and precipitating his father’s murder of Ray. Robert reflects intelligently on the balance between environmental determinism and individual choice. He quotes Randy Pausch: “we can’t choose the hands we are dealt, but we can choose how to play them,” and concludes that “for the most part, my father and I both played our hands in the worst possible ways.” What he says, though, is that people “should be defined not by their mistakes but by whether or not we have learned from them and have become better people as a result.” Yet the innocence/guilt question still looms large, because what judgment we come to about whether Robert committed the crime must inevitably color our entire impression of his self-analysis.
Here is the incredibly frustrating and complicated part of Robert’s case: I do not think it is possible to determine his innocence or guilt based on the available evidence. The case against Robert feels compelling: there were witnesses, Robert was in the building with a cut on his hand, and the torn-up disciplinary report had Robert’s name on it. And yet: the evidence against Robert is no more compelling than the evidence that has been brought against many people who have turned out to be innocent. In plenty of wrongful convictions, the evidence seemed like a slam-dunk. Robert’s case does not seem like a slam-dunk: inmate-witnesses who receive deals have incredibly strong motives to lie, having a cut on your hand in prison isn’t uncommon, and tearing up some other guy’s disciplinary report is precisely what you would do if you wanted to deflect suspicion after having murdered a correctional officer. Robert claims officer Nagle was widely despised, even by other correctional officers, and believes he was framed. And frankly, that’s perfectly plausible: I just wrote last week about the death of John Thompson, a Louisiana man who was framed for murder by a career criminal.
But it’s precisely because it’s so difficult to know what happened to Officer Nagle that nobody should feel comfortable with the execution of Robert Pruett. If the weapon had been tested and Robert’s DNA had been found on it, that could have given us confidence. Instead, the testing found: nothing. Legally, that’s not enough to reverse Robert’s conviction. Rationally, however, it should deeply unsettle us. I don’t know whether Robert Pruett murdered Daniel Nagle. But I am certain that the State of Texas doesn’t know either, and that alone should be reason not to take Robert’s life.
If I am being honest, though, the innocence issue has never been fundamental to my interest in Robert Pruett, and while I don’t want to suggest it isn’t important, I also don’t want to dwell on it too much. That’s not because I don’t find Robert’s defense persuasive, but because even if Robert Pruett didn’t kill Daniel Nagle, the criminal justice system contains plenty of other “Robert Pruetts” who did commit the crimes they were accused of. And those people do not deserve to be put to death either. I am capable of understanding, knowing the facts of Robert’s life, how someone in his position might have murdered someone like Nagle. Robert Pruett was literally born to the man who landed him in prison for life. In elementary school his parents were giving him drugs, and by his teenage years he was facing 99 years. It would be hideously poetical for the son to end up receiving the death penalty for the crime his father taught him to commit.
I would be sympathetic to a Robert Pruett who had killed someone because I understand that what happened to Robert at the age of 15 was a horrific injustice, and that what happened subsequently cannot be separated from that injustice. For the state to take a child, and throw him into an adult prison, where unless he becomes scarily violent he will be mercilessly raped, is to do everything possible to create a monster. One reason it’s important not to focus on whether Robert committed the second crime is that it ignores the first crime: the crime committed by telling a teenager he will be caged with rapists for 99 years. If that crime had not occurred, if the Texas justice system had treated him rationally and humanely, instead of throwing him into the abyss, then Robert might be a psychology professor today, rather than a man whose life is about to end pointlessly at the age of 38. (And I do mean pointlessly. Della Nagle, sister of Daniel, says that not only does she not know whether Robert is guilty, but that “Because I don’t believe in the death penalty, I have no desire to watch the state murder somebody… It’s not going to make my family whole again, but it is going to make his family not whole and so I have no desire to go see him be killed.”) It’s very difficult not to agree with what Robert says about the initial decision to put him away for life:
A jury isn’t required to explain their vote. Apparently, they thought I was beyond rehabilitation, that the only solution was to throw me away. Think about it for a second. Society places many restrictions on minors because they aren’t mature enough to make responsible decisions. Studies have shown that parts of the brain related to reasoning don’t fully develop until the mid—20’s. At 15 I wasn’t old enough to be outside after the 11pm curfew, I couldn’t watch R-rated movies without adult supervision, I couldn’t smoke, drink, get a tattoo, own a gun or even drive a car. Yet I was mature and reasonable enough to make decisions that would impact the rest of my life? Old enough to spend the rest of my life in prison? It is still unfathomable to me.
Giving up on a person at this age is especially cruel when you think about how little Robert Pruett was to blame for having been been born to Sam Pruett. And it’s especially senseless when you think about how it disincentivizes a teenager from ever trying to make up for their mistakes. Yet despite spending more than half his life in prison, Robert is still a vastly different person than the middle-school hoodlum who broke into houses and sold pot in 1993. That kid disliked reading, punched his way out of problems, and had no qualms about hurting people. The Robert Pruett of today has renounced violence and detests the person he was for many years. And despite ample evidence in his memoir that nearly everyone around him, both in his family life and in prison, had strong racial prejudices, he deplores racism:
It wasn’t until I got to death row that I realized my ignorant and hateful views on race were a reflection/projection of how I felt about myself, that I’d constructed a complex ideology totally rooted and parallel to the things I most disliked about me. I used to go on tangents about the criminality exhibited by the black youth of America, how it needs to be addressed and curbed, but the truth was that I was talking about myself the entire time and didn’t even realize it. It’s a truth that we project onto others the things we most hate about ourselves. Carl Jung said that our shadow selves, the part of our psyches that we store repressed emotional themes and the aspects of our personalities we dislike, is represented by what we hate/dislike in others. You are what you hate….
Paradoxically, it was Death Row that enabled Robert to realize this:
Somehow, I believe it took me coming here, living the life of extreme adversity that I have, in order to conquer my shadow and grow in the ways I have… I needed to have my life ripped away from me, to face a hopeless situation and experience great loss and pain in order to finally break through and spread my own wings…
And yet Death Row’s calming effect on Robert’s psyche, its ability to melt away grievances and catalyze growth, can’t possibly justify the act of execution itself. As Robert writes, once you change a person, you’re no longer taking the life of the person who perpetrated the crime:
The thing is, they aren’t killing the same people who committed the crimes. It takes years for the appeals to run their course and in that time people change. Sure, some are just dangerous as the day they arrived, and I’m not saying everyone’s some kind of angel, but so many have grown and matured in here and found their true Self. Many have realized the errors of their ways and would be productive members of society if they were given the chance. Even with a life in prison, these guys had much to offer humanity, not to mention the loved ones left with the scars of their murders.
That applies to Mark Stroman, who Robert met before Stroman’s execution. Stroman had committed a truly horrendous hate crime: in 2001, he had shot three South Asian people, two of whom died, as “revenge” for 9/11. But something remarkable happened after the tragedy: Rais Bhuiyan, the surviving victim, went on a pilgramage to Mecca and had a revelation. He corresponded with Stroman, who it turned out had been the “victim of extreme abuse and neglect as a child and became addicted to methamphetamine while in his teens.” Bhuiyan forgave Stroman, and dedicated himself to saving Stroman’s life, starting an organization called World Without Hate: “I’m trying to do my best not to allow the loss of another human life,” Buiyan said. “I’ll knock on every door possible. In Islam it says that saving one human life is the same as saving the entire mankind. Since I forgave him, all those principles encouraged me to go even further, and stop his execution and save another human life.” As Bhuiyan worked to save his life, Stroman realized just how harmful his bigotry had been. Days before his scheduled execution, he said:
For him to come forward after what I’ve done speaks volumes and has really touched my heart and the heart of many others… My friends and supporters [have been] trying to save my life, but now I have the Islamic community joining in, spearheaded by one very remarkable man named Rais Bhuiyan, who is a survivor of my hate. His deep Islamic beliefs gave him the strength to forgive the unforgivable. That is truly inspiring to me and should be an example for us all. The hate has to stop, we are all in this world together.
Stroman’s repentance, and Bhuiyan’s forgiveness, were an extraordinary story about possibilities for restorative justice. It didn’t matter. The State of Texas executed Stroman anyway. His last words were: “Hate is going on in this world and it has to stop. Hate causes a lifetime of pain.”
Mark Stroman wasn’t innocent. He was guilty of, as he said, the unforgivable. But his execution was still an injustice, because it denied the possibility of any kind of reconciliation or rehabilitation. As Robert writes in his memoir, the death penalty is not just unfair because of the risk of taking innocent lives, but because it is also an inhuman act of revenge perpetrated upon the guilty:
What the state is doing here is completely wrong. Not only is the system ﬂawed and more than a few innocent are killed, but it’s a stain against humanity when society kills in the name of justice. How do you teach someone it’s wrong to kill by killing? The death penalty is about vengeance, hate, and ultimately, fear. Hopefully one day the death penalty will be abolished. Until that day arrives all of us who are horriﬁed and outraged by the primitive and barbaric killings here should stand up against it.
That’s why I don’t think our horror at what is set to occur on Thursday should hinge on whether or not Robert took a life. The evidence of his guilt is woefully short of anything that could reasonably give us enough confidence to kill a man. But say Robert isn’t telling the truth. It’s possible, because thanks to the unforgiving quality of the Texas justice system, proving his innocence is the only possible route to saving his life. Even if this were the case, though, The Autobiography of Robert Pruett provides ample evidence that his death would be an indefensible tragedy. Not that these qualities should be necessary for mercy, but Robert is brilliant and sensitive, and his memoir makes it clear that in destroying Robert, society has squandered one of its most promising assets. Certainly, Robert could have made different choices during elementary school, and we can blame that small child as much as we like. Yet we also see how much couldn’t really be helped. Pruett’s autobiography is a kind of anti-Hillbilly Elegy that ends at Death Row instead of Yale Law School, and shows us how difficult it can be to transcend a childhood of poverty and violence, without anyone helping you or encouraging you, when every surrounding influence is a bad influence driving you further toward a seemingly inevitable terrible endpoint. No life more conclusively shows that, whether thanks to divine jealousy or genetic happenstance, in this unforgiving world the sins of the father are visited directly upon the son.
Watch a video of Robert Pruett here.