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Judge orders new proceedings or release for Texas death row inmate

Ronald Prible was convicted of capital murder for the deaths of a Houston family of five in 1999. File Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Ronald Prible was convicted of capital murder for the deaths of a Houston family of five in 1999. File Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice

May 20 (UPI) -- A federal judge on Wednesday ordered prosecutors to either bring new proceedings against a Texas death row inmate or release him from prison.

The ruling means Ronald Prible, 48, could go free within a matter of months.

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He was given the death penalty in 2002 for the 1999 deaths of five family members in Houston. A jury convicted him of capital murder for the shooting deaths of Esteban "Steve" Herrera and Nilda Tirado, and the deaths by smoke inhalation of their three children -- Rachel, 7, Valerie, 7, and Jade, 1.

District Judge Keith Ellison granted Prible's motion for relief based on his lawyers' arguments that prosecutors suppressed evidence and improperly handled testimony from jailhouse informants.

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An inmate at the Federal Correctional Institute in Beaumont, Texas, testified that Prible confessed to him he killed the family. Defense lawyers, though, said prosecutors coached informants to speak against Prible, and that his cellmate, Michael Beckcom, acted "based on promises of relief" from investigators.

"Beckcom's testimony was plainly the most compelling evidence that the jury heard at trial," Ellison wrote.

"Although the defense could and did impeach Beckcom's credibility as a jailhouse smith, they did not have strong impeachment evidence about the actual substance of what he relayed to the jury about Prible's confession.

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"Prible has made a strong case that there is more than a 'reasonable probability' that exclusion of Beckcom's testimony would have altered the outcome of the trial."

Ellison gave prosecutors 180 days to bring a new case against Prible or he'd be entitled to release from confinement.

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