Opinion | The Fire Last Time

Robert Pruett was 17 when he was sentenced to 99 years in prison for being party to his father’s fatal stabbing of a neighbor in 1995. Five years later, Mr. Pruett was sent to death row after being convicted of stabbing a guard to death.

Prosecutors said the guard, Daniel Nagle, was filing a disciplinary complaint against Mr. Pruett — a motive for murder. But no physical evidence was ever produced to link Mr. Pruett to the slaying. He was instead convicted largely on eyewitness testimony from inmates, who Mr. Pruett’s lawyers say were compensated with favorable deals from the prosecution.

Years later, Mr. Pruett’s lawyers claimed in a court filing, it emerged that when Mr. Nagle was killed, he was preparing to file a grievance against fellow guards who were later arrested after being accused of forming a money-laundering ring with inmates at the prison. One of those guards, Eliseo Martinez, was among the first prison officials to implicate Mr. Pruett in Mr. Nagle’s murder.

Evidently persuaded by these facts, a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote that “it appears there may be significant problems with the evidence of guilt and with the imposition of the death penalty in this case.”

But it didn’t matter. That court — and many others — let Mr. Pruett’s execution go ahead.

By then, there was little to stop it. Around the time Mr. Pruett was first jailed, the government had gutted inmates’ rights to appeal to federal courts.

“It’s not enough to show that the state has virtually no evidence against your client,” said Mr. Pruett’s lawyer David R. Dow. “You have to actually prove they’re innocent. That’s proving a negative. It’s a very hard thing to do.”

And in the end, it could not be done. Mr. Pruett was executed in October of 2017.

Born into deprivation, Mr. Pruett may never have had much of a chance at life, but whatever remained of his prospects was extinguished not on the day Mr. Nagle was killed but four years earlier, when a right-wing terrorist committed mass murder on the plains of Oklahoma, setting off a legislative chain reaction that would seal the fates of many death row inmates who had nothing to do with terrorism.


On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated some 7,000 pounds of fertilizer, industrial solvent, and stolen explosives in a Ryder moving truck outside the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 infants and children in the building’s on-site day care center. Hundreds more were injured. As black smoke poured from the bowels of the building on television screens across the country, legislators resolved to act.

Americans were outraged by the attack, as they had been by the bombing of the World Trade Center two years earlier. They were horrified by the broader symbolic assault on the American project itself. Mr. McVeigh’s ideology was a noxious medley of grievances echoed by many in the mob that sacked the Capitol after President Trump’s incitement.

Now, stunned by the attack on Congress, commentators and legislators are again poring over our antiterrorism statutes, wondering what more needs to be done to prevent another such travesty.

But the lessons of the Oklahoma City bombing’s aftermath ought to serve as a warning: Rushing to pass antiterrorism legislation in the wake of a shocking assault may or may not stop future violence, but it can easily foreclose the rights of citizens, including some of the most vulnerable ones — inmates in our country’s prisons.


Political pressure for a legislative response to the Oklahoma City bombing began as the rubble was being cleared. In a decade already racked with anxiety about terrorism and violent crime, the heightened visibility of incidents involving home-brewed extremism, like the siege of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, added a nightmarish new element to America’s fears. .

With a strong public mandate, the Republican-controlled Congress set to work with a good deal of leverage against the Democratic president, Bill Clinton, given the upcoming election. By 1996, roughly a year after the carnage in Oklahoma, Mr. Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (A.E.D.P.A.) into law.

The law was a bipartisan affair expedited by Republican interest in stifling challenges to the death penalty, and inflamed by concern that Mr. McVeigh would evade capital punishment at trial. (In fact, he requested that all further appeals of his execution be halted, then fruitlessly pursued a stay of execution later for ostensibly ideological reasons.) Elements of the A.E.D.P.A. ensured that lengthy appeals and legal maneuvering could not protect convicts sentenced to die from meeting a speedy end.

To accomplish that, the A.E.D.P.A. transformed the writ of habeas corpus.

Habeas corpus is a Latin term describing a prisoner’s right to go to court to protest unlawful imprisonment. Embraced by America’s founders, the Great Writ, as it’s colloquially known, is enshrined in the Constitution, statutory law, and case law, where it guarantees certain rights to the detained. Habeas corpus entitles detainees convicted in state courts to appeal to federal courts if they believe their rights were violated at trial or during sentencing. During the 1960s, the Supreme Court expanded those rights — one reason Republicans were so eager to limit them in the A.E.D.P.A.

The A.E.D.P.A. imposed a one-year deadline on state prisoners seeking relief in federal courts, which John Blume, a Cornell Law School professor and the director of the school's Death Penalty Project, wrote, “has deprived thousands of inmates of any federal review of their convictions, and in some cases, their death sentences.” It limited petitioners to a single challenge in federal court. It made it harder for appellants to present facts in federal court that had not been presented in state courts — the provision that doomed Mr. Pruett.

Perhaps the most egregious change was a provision that required federal judges to pay strict deference to state court decisions. That aspect of the law, Mr. Blume told me, has “been interpreted by the Supreme Court to say that a federal court can’t order a new trial for a state prisoner just because they think the state court got it wrong. It has to be so wrong that no reasonable jurist could have come to that conclusion. So some people call it deference — it’s a deference provision to state court — but it’s been interpreted by the court to basically almost require abdication.”

Mr. Dow, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and a founder of the Texas Innocence Network, has studied the impact of the A.E.D.P.A. on capital punishment for over a decade. Since the passage of the act, he told me, executions have been carried out more quickly. He said the law also led to a significant decline in successful petitions for relief filed by death row inmates.

“Insofar as the published cases reveal,” Mr. Dow wrote in a 2009 chapter written with Eric M. Freedman of Hofstra University’s law school, “the success rate for capital inmates on federal habeas has fallen dramatically — to levels about a fifth what they previously were.”

While a study cited by Mr. Dow and Jeffrey Newberry, a legal clinic supervisor at the University of Houston Law Center, in a U.C.L.A. Law Review article found that almost 40 percent of federal capital habeas proceedings were successful from 1973 to 1995, the world the A.E.D.P.A. created looks sharply different. Between 2000 and 2020, they found, of the 151 death row inmates who pursued federal habeas relief in Texas, only one was successful.


Aspects of the A.E.D.P.A. did address terrorism. It allowed for the prosecution of people who provided funds, recruitment or shelter to known terrorist groups, regardless of whether they directly participated in any terrorist act. It made financial transactions with countries known to support international terrorism illegal. It also included provisions for supporting victims of terrorism.

But the A.E.D.P.A. was never concerned strictly with terrorism. Tung Yin, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School whose research focuses on national security and terrorism law, told me the law amounted to a “kind of grab bag of all kinds of things,” some of which had been on legislators’ wish lists for some time.

In that sense, Mr. Yin said, the law resembled its spiritual successor, the Patriot Act. With the A.E.D.P.A. and the Patriot Act in the rearview, he added, “there’s always a concern, I think, to passing legislation quickly in the face of some kind of very shocking and horrifying events.”

Mr. Blume echoed his concern. The people who broke into the Capitol on Jan. 6 “need to be punished. They need to be caught. They need to be convicted,” he said. “But we have enough, plenty of stuff on the books, to do that. We don’t need to do anything that’s going to just add to the mass incarceration problem that we already have in this country.”

“I think the idea that we need some new set of criminal laws in order to deal with this sort of mayhem that we witnessed over the last week is really just kind of crazy,” Mr. Dow agreed. “Laws that are enacted with the ostensible target of one very specific iteration of some type of crime become much broader in their application and sometimes leave the original intentions behind entirely.”

Timothy McVeigh was executed only a few months before the Sept. 11 attacks would usher in yet another round of antiterrorism laws with effects far exceeding their ostensible targets.

He had contended that the United States government was tyrannical, murderous. He did not live long enough to see his convictions affirmed.

Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is an Opinion writer.

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