On Thursday, the state of Texas will kill Robert Pruett.
The 38-year-old has been behind bars since he was 15.
He was arrested in 1995 as an accomplice in his father’s murder of a neighbor; five years later, a prison guard who had given him a disciplinary infraction for eating a sandwich in a hallway was found stabbed to death. Although he continues to maintain that he is innocent, multiple witnesses claimed that Pruett was responsible, and he was sentenced to death for the crime.
For proponents of the death penalty, the events that define Pruett’s life serve as the case for killing him. He spent his pre-prison years in a vortex of violence — getting into fights, stealing, developing a drug addiction. Once he arrived in prison, he briefly flirted with neo-Nazi beliefs, reading “Mein Kampf” and getting a swastika tattoo to intimidate other inmates.
Wherever you fall on the question of Pruett’s guilt or innocence in the prison guard murder, a brief look at his life could make you think that he’s at least the sort of person who may do something like that.
But a person’s life is not defined just by their worst actions. People grow, and they change, and Pruett’s decades in prison gave him time to reflect on the life he had lived. He turned those reflections into an autobiography. It was reviewed in early October by Current Affairs’s Nathan Robinson.
The autobiography serves as a sort of sociological self-examination — an attempt by Pruett to understand why his life went the way it did. He writes not to absolve himself of the choices he has made, but to impart why he felt like his options were so limited.
“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,” he writes. “Ultimately, we make our own choices in life, but it helps to know why we are inclined or predisposed to certain types of behavior.”
It is almost a cliche to explain criminal behavior through proverbs about a “bad childhood.” But explaining something and justifying it are two different things, and the more you learn about Pruett’s upbringing, the more remarkable it is that someone so deprived of a nurturing environment could grow to write so profoundly about his life circumstances.
If violent tendencies have a hereditary component, Pruett lost the gene lottery. He describes his father as “the most violent man I ever met”; his father had frequent stints in prison and would get into fights with family and just about anyone else.
Pruett’s family was dirt poor; they were frequently ejected from trailer parks and motel rooms, as his father worked minimum-wage jobs to try to keep them above water.
But being poor in America is often associated with more than just not having money; violence and crime was all around him. His brother Steven was molested by a family member; his mentally disabled sister was raped and placed into a foster home. His drug addiction started early, when he was offered a huff of gasoline from a stranger at age five. Both parents smoked marijuana, and his dad took him along on a marijuana sale to use him as cover.
Pruett’s writing about prison demonstrates that it is a brutal place. He immediately learns to defend himself against prison rape and at first, becomes even more violent.
But spending the rest of your life behind bars gives you a lot of time to think and to read. Pruett read the works of Carl Jung and B.F. Skinner, and developed a fascination with psychology. Eventually, he came to see the forces that pushed him toward anger and violence, and that the same forces acted on African-Americans he came to despise during his flirtation with white nationalist beliefs:
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 being sent to death row, Pruett developed friendships with fellow inmates. As they were executed one by one, he came to the conclusion that the people being executed are no longer the same people they were in the moment of their crimes:
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.
When Pruett is executed on Thursday, he won’t be the same young man who stood and watched his father kill a neighbor over a petty argument, or who may or may not have murdered a prison guard for the same reason. His writing makes clear that he is a deeply reflective person who sought to understand the forces bearing down on him for the first time.
Last week, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of Pruett’s case. Because the United States is not one of the 105 countries that have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, Pruett’s journey of self-discovery and redemption will end on Thursday, when the state of Texas will kill him.