Federal judge orders new trial for Texas death row inmate
Ronald Prible was sentenced to death on a capital murder charge in connection with the slayings of five family members in 1999
By Julian Gill
HUNTSVILLE, Texas — A federal judge on Wednesday agreed to temporarily set aside a Texas death row inmate’s capital murder conviction and ordered the state to either give him a new trial or release him from custody.
Ronald Prible, 48, was sentenced to death in 2002 on a capital murder charge in connection with the slayings of five family members in 1999 at a northwest Houston home. His sentence partially stemmed from the testimony of a prison informant who said Prible confessed to the killing.
Prible’s attorneys have maintained that prosecutors, including former Harris County prosecutor Kelly Siegler, trained a group of informants to set him up.
Siegler no longer works for the office and currently serves as host of the crime TV show “Cold Justice.”
In an 88-page court order, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison said Prible should be released if the state does not begin new criminal proceedings within 180 days. Harris County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Dane Schiller said this ruling was only a first step in the ongoing federal proceedings.
“The Texas Attorney General may decide to appeal this to the 5th Circuit,” he said. “We are closely monitoring the case.”
Prible’s appellate attorneys have been challenging the conviction for more than a decade. Judge Ellison agreed with their claims that the state suppressed and withheld evidence in the original prosecution.
“I’ve had this case for 12 years, and the takeaway is that we have a client who has been on death row for 12 years, placed there on informant testimony of the sort that should not be used to put anybody on death row or in prison,” said Prible’s appellate attorney James Rytting. “It’s a serious problem within the federal and state system, and we were fortunate that other inmates in the case came forward and said he was set up.”
On April 24, 1999, Prible's longtime friend, Steve Herrera, was found on the floor of his northwest Houston home, shot once in the base of his skull. Herrera's fiancee, Nilda Tirado, was found on the loveseat in the den wearing only a T-shirt, also killed by a single gunshot wound to the head. Her body had been covered in gasoline and burned. Black soot spread through the house, fatally choking the couple's three young daughters as they slept. Investigators believed that Tirado had been sexually assaulted and her body burned to cover the evidence.
According to earlier reports in the Houston Chronicle, authorities learned that Prible was the last known person to see the family alive. Police, however, found little evidence when they questioned him. He did not smell like smoke. His clothes and shoes from the night before were tested for trace evidence, but no blood, hair or accelerants were found. Tests on the clothes he was wearing when he was detained also came back negative.
Further investigation did not reveal enough evidence to charge him with the crime. Prible did, however, confess to a string of bank robberies, which landed him in federal prison. He said some of the bank money was kept at Herrera’s house, and Prible has maintained that someone else who knew about the money likely robbed the family.
In 2001, after the capital murder case went cold, Siegler questioned Prible in prison and later charged him in the slayings. In court filings, Prible’s attorneys say Siegler supplied prison informants with enough information to fabricate a confession.
While challenging the conviction, Rytting and attorney Philip Hilder pointed to other allegations of misconduct against Siegler. For example, a state district judge in 2015 found that she had committed 36 instances of misconduct in the 2007 murder trial of David Temple, who has since been given a new trial after a conviction in his wife's 1999 slaying. Temple was found guilty again in the second trial.
Siegler has denied any wrongdoing in that case. In the Prible case, attorneys say she withheld letters that proved the snitches were setting up their client.
©2020 the Houston Chronicle