By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune, Nov. 15, 2019
Texas’ highest criminal court halted Rodney Reed’s execution Friday afternoon, sending the now-famous case back to the trial court to further review several claims — biggest of all that he is innocent of the murder that landed him on death row more than 20 years ago.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ ruling came hours after the state’s parole board separately recommended Gov. Greg Abbott delay Reed’s Wednesday execution by 120 days. The court’s ruling effectively preempts any gubernatorial involvement since it takes Reed’s execution off the calendar and starts a new legal process.
Reed’s case has gained an enormous amount of attention — with dozens of state and federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, A-list celebrities and millions of people signed on to online petitions calling for a stop to his death as doubts of his guilt grew. Shortly after the ruling, Reed’s lawyer said he “absolutely” thought the the new review would lead to a new trial for Reed.
“We’re happy that we’re going to have an opportunity to present the compelling evidence that Rodney Reed didn’t commit the crime,” Bryce Benjet of the Innocence Project told The Texas Tribune. “The Court of Criminal Appeals recognized the substance of this case and the need for a special hearing where all the evidence can be considered.”
Benjet said a colleague of his had gone to visit Reed on death row and tell him about the board’s decision, but he was unaware if Reed knew yet of the stay.
Reed, now 51, was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1996 murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop. For more than two decades, Reed has maintained his innocence. His lawyers over the years have brought forward mountains of new evidence — presenting new witnesses even this week — that they say shows his innocence in Stites’ death and instead puts suspicion on her fiance, Jimmy Fennell.
Both Reed and Fennell have been accused of multiple sexual assaults. Reed was indicted, but never convicted, in several other rape cases. Fennell spent 10 years in prison after he kidnapped and allegedly raped a woman while on duty as a police officer in 2007.
Stites’ body was found partially unclothed in Bastrop County hours after she didn’t show up to her grocery store job, according to court records. Fennell’s truck was found abandoned in a nearby school parking lot. Pieces of Stites’ belt, which is believed to have been used to strangle her, were found at both locations.
Fennell was originally a suspect, but the prosecution turned to Reed about a year later when it found sperm cells that matched him inside her body. Reed said he and Stites had a consensual affair, a claim his lawyers say was doubted largely because he was a black man in rural Texas and Stites was white. Reed was tried by an all-white jury.
His attorneys recently brought forward witnesses, like Stites’ cousin and co-workers, to corroborate the relationship, but Bastrop County prosecutors and Stites’ family have strongly denied it. They remain certain Reed is guilty, saying he was a serial rapist who stopped Stites on her way to work, raped her and then killed her.
Bastrop County prosecutors could not be reached for comment Friday.
Reed’s legal team has regularly filed appeals in both state and federal courts, presenting new witnesses and reexamined forensic evidence he claims proves his innocence. Pathologists have said Stites was killed before the time Fennell said she left their home for work, when she was alone with him. And the medical examiner who originally pegged her death to a later time — likely when she was driving to work — clarified in an affidavit that it would be impossible to pinpoint the exact time.
Experts whose testimony prosecutors used to argue that Reed’s sperm was a result of sexual assault just before the murder have also had revised statements, saying the sperm could have been from days before, when Reed said the two had sex. The medical examiner has since said there was no evidence the sperm was connected to the sexual assault.
In his most recent appeals, Reed presented even more witnesses that point suspicion at Fennell. Several law enforcement officers and other people who knew him claim Fennell was abusive toward Stites or was suspicious she was having an affair with a black man. One man said that while the two were in prison together, Fennell confessed to killing Stites.
Fennell’s lawyer, Robert Phillips, has laughed off these new, 11th hour witnesses, saying they pale in comparison to the evidence against Reed.
The Court of Criminal Appeals’ ruling puts all of that on the table for review by the trial court. The appeals court also stopped a 2015 execution date for Reed but sent his case back on one focused claim. It led to a four-day hearing in 2017 and ultimately a rejection from the courts, prompting his Wednesday execution date.
“The 2017 hearing was limited to a single claim of due process violation,” Benjet said. “This remand involves essentially all of the evidence.”
Reed had other court appeals pending at multiple levels Friday, from the trial court to the U.S. Supreme Court. In his other appeals, he asked again for DNA testing on the belt thought to have been used to strangle Stites.
Before the court’s decision, most of the pleas to stop Reed’s execution focused on Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The governor has stopped one execution since taking office in 2015, which, like Reed’s case as of Friday, came with the unanimous urging of the parole board. Abbott agreed last year to change death row inmate Thomas Whitaker’s death sentence to one of life in prison minutes before Whitaker was set to be injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital in the state’s death chamber.
But that case was about mercy and granting the wishes of Whitaker’s only surviving victim, his father. Reed’s case instead questions the guilty verdict that landed him on death row — a verdict the Texas justice system has upheld by for decades. Before Whitaker, no Texas governor had stopped an execution in more than a decade.
With the court’s stay of execution, Abbott no longer needs to make a decision on the board’s recommendation to delay Reed’s death. His office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Reed’s case in recent weeks, but he has been on the receiving end of a flood of social media attention. After the ruling Friday, he tweeted about the case.
“For those sending messages about Rodney Reed please note that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Rodney Reed’s execution and sent his case back to the trial court for further review.”
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
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