October 19, 2017

CUA Law professor Cara Drinan published an Oct. 19 opinion piece entitled "We failed Robert Pruett from childhood on. Then Texas executed him" in USA Today. See below.

We failed Robert Pruett from childhood on. Then Texas executed him

From: USA Today
Date: Oct. 19, 2017
By: Cara Drinan

Last week, Texas executed Robert Pruett, who was already serving a 99-year sentence for murder when he was convicted of stabbing a correctional officer with a makeshift weapon. Pruett maintained to his death that he had not killed the officer, and there was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime. The state relied on inmate witnesses who allegedly received favorable deals in exchange for their testimony implicating Pruett. As irrational as it may seem, it is very difficult to mount a claim of actual innocence in the American appellate process, and we will likely never know whether Texas executed Pruett for a crime he did not commit.

But we do know this: Robert Pruett did not belong in adult prison in the first place.

Pruett grew up in abject poverty, salvaging food from dumpsters to stave off hunger. His father, "the most violent man (he'd) ever met," was in and out of prison during his childhood. When Pruett's father was home, he regularly beat Pruett and his siblings. They bounced from one car or apartment to another, bathing with hoses behind stores. Both Pruett's mother and father joked about molesting their children as a way to "claim" them; sexual abuse was a pervasive family dynamic. Pruett's parents used marijuana and cocaine regularly, forcing their kids to do the same. By elementary school, Pruett was high most days.

In 1995, when he was 15 years old, Pruett got into a verbal fight with a neighbor. Later that evening, Pruett, his father, and his older brother confronted the neighbor, and Pruett's father stabbed the neighbor to death. Pruett's father received a life sentence for the killing; his brother received 40 years; and Pruett received a 99-year sentence. Pruett didn't know that his father was going to kill the neighbor, but under Texas law, he was held accountable for the murder.

Today, it is unlikely that Pruett could lawfully receive the sentence that Texas imposed upon him at 15. Since 2005, in a series of Eighth Amendment cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that children are fundamentally different - both less culpable and more amenable to rehabilitation - and that state sentencing practices must reflect that scientific fact. The court has abolished execution for juvenile offenses; it has banned life without parole for juvenile non-homicide offenses; and it has required states to engage in a searching evaluation of a child's social, familial and educational context before imposing life without parole in homicide cases.

The court has gone so far as to say that, given the inchoate nature of the juvenile brain, appropriate cases for juvenile life without parole should be "uncommon." Had Pruett been able to leverage the court's recent sentencing decisions, it is questionable whether he would have been subjected to the horrors of adult prison as a juvenile in the first place.

Pruett's case is an indictment of the American criminal justice system and the cruel indifference it has demonstrated to children over the last half century. In response to rising crime rates in the late 20th century and the later-debunked "juvenile super predator" theory, states across the nation passed laws making it easier to charge juveniles as adults and exposing them to sentences drafted with adults in mind.

That's how Pruett ended up receiving essentially the same sentence that his father (the actual killer) received. That's how Pruett ended up going to an adult prison at 16, despite the fact that juveniles in such facilities experience the highest rates of physical and sexual assaults among inmates - assaults that Pruett documented in his unpublished biography. And ultimately, that's how Pruett ended up being executed for a crime he claimed he never committed.

The United States is now the only developed nation that sentences its children to die in prison, and we engage in juvenile correctional practices that have been condemned by a U.N. expert, the pope and international human rights organizations. We failed Robert Pruett in not addressing his childhood poverty, abuse and neglect; we failed Robert Pruett in treating him as if he'd been as culpable as his adult father when he was 15; and we failed Robert Pruett by immersing him in a culture of prison violence at 16. We can and must do better by our children, even when they commit a crime.