Apr 28, 10:25 PM EDT

Man facing execution for killing of Texas corrections officer gets reprieve from state judge

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HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) -- A Texas judge on Tuesday halted the execution of an inmate convicted of stabbing a corrections officer to death more than 15 years ago.

Robert Pruett received the reprieve from Judge Bert Richardson just hours before he could have been taken to the Texas death chamber at a Huntsville prison. Richardson, a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, is serving as a visiting judge in the district court where Pruett was convicted.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said Pruett told him that he was "excited to hear the news" and then returned to a different prison where death row inmates are housed about 45 miles away.

Richardson's order was in response to a motion from Pruett's attorneys, who sought new DNA tests on the piece of metal used to kill 37-year-old officer Daniel Nagle in December 1999 at a South Texas prison.

Richardson said while the request from Pruett's lawyers "no doubt" was meant to delay the punishment and such tactics "appear to be unreasonable, it is not clear they, in fact, are unreasonable."

The reprieve came as the U.S. Supreme Court considered at least three appeals from Pruett's attorneys. Hours later, the high court denied all of the appeals, which had no effect on the reprieve.

Pruett, 35, would have been the seventh inmate put to death this year in Texas. His lawyers contend he is innocent.

Appeals attorney David Dow denied that the DNA request was a deliberate strategy to delay the execution.

"I understand the court's frustration, everybody's frustration," he said. "Our belief is when the evidence comes back, they're all going to stop complaining that we engaged in dilatory tactics and will say `thank you' to us that Texas didn't execute an innocent person."

Dow specifically asked for DNA testing of the metal rod used to kill Nagle and masking tape that formed a handle on the rod. He said while they believed testing was done in 2000, newer testing techniques are now available.

The judge said it's unlikely but "not impossible to conceive" that results of new tests could be favorable to Pruett. He ordered the tests to be complete and results available by May 28.

Pruett was imprisoned at the McConnell Unit when he got into a fatal fight with Nagle over a peanut butter sandwich.

Evidence showed Pruett wanted to take his bag lunch into a recreation yard, but this was against the rules, so Nagle wrote a disciplinary report. Prosecutors said this angered Pruett, who stabbed Nagle with the 7-inch-long sharpened metal rod.

Pruett said Nagle tore up the disciplinary report containing his name and that he was in a gym when he found out the officer had been killed.

DNA tests requested by Pruett's lawyers on pieces of the report found scattered around Nagle's body were inconclusive.

Pruett insisted Nagle could have been killed by other inmates or prison officers.

"I never killed nobody in my life," Pruett told jurors at his 2002 trial.

At the time of Nagle's killing, Pruett was already serving a 99-year sentence for his part in the 1995 slaying of a neighbor in Channelview, east of Houston. His father is serving life in prison in that killing and his brother has a 40-year sentence.

The execution reprieve means Texas prison officials still have enough pentobarbital for two more lethal injections. Other executions also are scheduled, meaning the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will have to replenish its supply of the increasingly difficult-to-obtain sedative for execution use or find a substitute drug to replace it.

Texas carries out capital punishment more than any other state.

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