A federal appeals court on Monday reinstated the death sentence of a bank robber convicted of killing five people including three children, the youngest just 22-months old.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed a lower court’s ruling that would have freed Ronald Jeffrey Prible Jr, had the state failed to retry him within six months. A three-judge panel determined that there was not enough credible evidence to overturn his conviction and death sentence.
On the morning of April 24, 1999, Esteban “Steve” Herrera and Nilda Tirado were shot to death in their Texas home. The killer poured accelerants over Tirado’s partially nude body and set it on fire. “The fumes from their mother’s burning corpse asphyxiated the couple’s three young daughters, who were sleeping upstairs,” according to court documents.
Prible immediately emerged as the prime suspect and was indicted on capital murder charges. Prible and Herrera were partners in crime, robbing and dealing drugs, according to court documents. They wanted to open a topless bar. To finance their business venture, Prible robbed banks and Herrera sold drugs, according to court documents. Prible robbed $46,000 from six banks.
The relationship fell apart after Prible accused Herrera of stealing $250,000 from him.
He was shooting pool and drinking in Herrera’s garage on the night of the murders. “Prible’s semen was found in Tirado’s mouth,” according to court documents.
Prible claimed that he and Tirado had previously “messed around” and had sex on the night of the murders. “But Tirado’s closest friends dismissed the notion of an affair. They claimed Tirado had recently told them that Prible gave her the creeps, she didn’t like him and was tired of him being at her home.”
Prible confessed to the murders while in prison to Michael Beckcom, a convicted murderer and “jailhouse snitch,” who admitted to angling for a lower sentence. Prible told him that Herrera “took $250,000 of my hard-earned money” and “was going to kill me, so I handled my business,” court documents stated.
Prible was convicted and sentenced. Prosecutors argued at the trial that Prible was the last person seen with Herrera at the house before the murders, their struggling business venture provided the motive, the bullets that killed Herrera and Tirado were fired from the same gun and “a fire was set to destroy physical evidence, including Prible’s DNA,” according to the court opinion.
Prible’s attorneys accused prosecutors of suppressing evidence and training a group of jailhouse informants to set up Prible, the Houston Chronicle reported. U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison agreed with their arguments in an 88-page ruling in May of 2020. He gave the state 180 days to start new criminal proceedings or otherwise release Prible.
“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,” Prible’s appellate attorney James Rytting told the Houston Chronicle in 2020. “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.”
A month after the murders, Prible pleaded guilty in federal court to bank robbery. He was sentenced to 63 months in prison. It was later reduced to 36 months, according to court documents.