Now that a judge has slammed former Harris County prosecutor Kelly Siegler for supposedly withholding evidence in the 2007 trial of convicted wife-killer David Temple, it makes sense for attorneys with other clients convicted by Siegler to raise similar claims.
And that's what's happening in the case of Ronald Jeffrey Prible, sentenced to death in 2002 for the cold-case murder of his friend and friend's fiancée. Prosecutors said Prible shot Steve Herrera, and then orally raped Nilda Tirado before shooting her and setting her on fire. Accelerant was found on Tirado's body and a living room couch; the couple's three kids died from smoke inhalation after the house was set on fire. (Prible, however, was not charged with their deaths.)
Prible was charged with murders while he was serving a two-year federal sentence for bank robbery, and he was relocated to a higher-security prison. It was there, his attorneys claim, that Siegler had an organized ring of informants that targeted Prible and fed her information, much of it allegedly fabricated. Prible and his attorneys claim that these weren't garden-variety snitches who just happened to overhear a confession, but rather hand-selected prisoners working as state agents in hopes of getting their sentences reduced. At least three prisoners wrote to Siegler saying they were willing to testify against Prible; only one wound up testifying.
But even before the Houston Chronicle's October 17 story detailing Prible's attorney's latest filings, Prible had raised the specter of Temple.
"What was done to me by...Siegler in order to procure my conviction is worthy of a John Grisham book," Prible wrote U.S. District Court Judge Keith Ellison in October 2012, nearly three years before Judge Larry Gist's findings in the Temple case. Prible included a Chron article in which Temple attorneys Dick DeGuerin and Stanley Schneider accused Siegler of hiding evidence.
"These cases are just the tip of the iceberg in the wrong that she has done," Prible wrote. "You know it, I know it, the entire city knows it and KNEW it when she used courtroom antics to secure convictions for years."
No doubt Siegler never minced words in court, and she surely didn't hold back in Prible's trial. As we reported in 2002, after Prible's attorney questioned the state's DNA expert, saying there was no scientifically sound way to prove when the semen was deposited, Siegler sarcastically told jurors, "You've got to believe his semen is so tasty she wants to keep it in her mouth." (Her boyfriend's semen was found on anal and vaginal swabs).
In 2008, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Prible's motion for further DNA testing.
The state has responded to Prible's claims about the jailhouse snitches primarily on procedural grounds, saying he waited too long to raise them. But the state has also alleged that Prible hasn't provided any proof of a "ring" of snitches quietly cultivated by prosecutors, saying that he's relied mostly on the unsworn speculation of a former inmate. That man, Carl Walker, had once written Siegler with his intent to testify against Prible. He later told Prible's court-appointed investigator that he got cold feet about striking a deal with Siegler.
Prible had filed motions as early as 2007 alleging a snitch conspiracy theory. Prible and his appellate attorneys would later argue that they didn't know the extent of the conspiracy until they got access to the state's complete case file in 2011. Prible presented these new snitch claims, as well as other arguments, in a hearing presided over by Harris County District Court Judge Mark Ellis, who was also the judge at trial.
Ellis found that the conspiracy claim was based on Walker's "unpersuasive" allegations, and had little merit.
Prosecutors have argued that not only has Prible never proven the existence of a snitch ring, but the credibility of any other potential informant is irrelevant, since only one of them testified.
That inmate was a former bodybuilder named Michael Beckcom, who had been convicted of killing a federal witness in alleged business scams involving the former mayor of Ingleside, a small town near Corpus Christi. Beckcom and another man had been convicted of forcing the victim into a metal shed and asphyxiating him with exhaust fumes.
It's disconcerting that Siegler made a deal with someone like Beckcom. We could maybe see striking a deal with a killer in order to seek justice for murdered children, but Prible wasn't charged with those deaths.
At trial, jurors knew that Beckcom "was testifying in exchange for a hope of sentence reduction," and that he had previously lied under oath. They also heard that Beckcom was a known "serial snitch" and "had a reputation in prison as an opportunist, someone who would collect information for his own benefit, and someone who would testify falsely."
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This is a good time to point out that we're not crazy about the idea of testimony from jailhouse snitches, who come with inherent, obvious credibility issues. We understand Prible's main allegation of a "ring" of snitches, but so far, it seems like the takeaway from this case is the use of snitches in the first place, a practice employed by prosecutors nationwide.
Asked by the Houston Press about her use of Beckcom's testimony, Siegler explained in an email, "Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if prosecutors never had to resort to using snitches or informants or criminals to prove their cases? But that is not the world we live in. And when informants or criminals are used as witnesses, the juries are told that and they are also told any benefit that informant/witness might receive for their testimony. A thorough prosecutor presents any and all CREDIBLE evidence to a jury and it is a prosecutor’s job and duty to do so, even when that credible evidence comes via a convicted felon.”
As for the specific accusation of using a snitch-ring, Siegler responded: "The allegations made by this defense attorney that I actually manipulated and orchestrated some ring of snitches in the federal prison system are not only false and insulting and defaming, they are laughable. This defense attorney has access to the federal phone records, the federal visitation records and the inmate housing information and if there is some dirty conspiracy between me and these federal inmates, where is his PROOF? All he has is his own conspiratorial imagination and lies to rely on to try and free a man on death row who is responsible for murdering five people, including three little girls."
Prible's allegations are nothing new, but perhaps they're getting attention now because of the findings against Siegler in the Temple case. In July, shortly after the findings were issued, lawyers for another man convicted by Siegler accused her of hiding evidence. We don't expect this is the last we'll hear about the Prible case, and about other cases Siegler tried.