BASTROP COUNTY, Texas — (THE TEXAS TRIBUNE) As the execution date nears for a Texas man whose guilt has long been shrouded in doubt, all eyes are shifting from the courts to the governor’s mansion.
The murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop and the subsequent conviction of Rodney Reed has been in the spotlight for more than two decades. Reed, now 51, has consistently maintained his innocence in the 1996 slaying. His lawyers for years have pointed to new evidence they say makes it impossible for Reed to be the killer and instead, they say, puts suspicion on Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell.
Both men have been accused of multiple sexual assaults. Reed was indicted, but never convicted, in several other rape cases months before his trial in Stites’ death began in 1998. Fennell spent 10 years in prison after he kidnapped and allegedly raped a woman while on duty as a police officer in 2007.
Since Reed’s conviction in Stites’ death, a suspected murder weapon has gone untested for DNA, forensic evidence has been reexamined and new witnesses have come forward. That has led to a growing chorus of voices — including celebrities like Dr. Phil, Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna — to express their belief in Reed’s innocence and plead for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to stop his death, scheduled for Nov. 20. On Tuesday morning, the newly-formed, bipartisan Texas House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus and two other Republicans joined the call, asking Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles for more time to review Reed’s new findings.
“We appreciate how difficult decisions like this are and know how seriously you take them, but this is also an opportunity for you to prevent a rush to execution before these new leads are properly explored,” the 26 lawmakers, equally-split among party lines, say in a letter obtained by The Texas Tribune. “... Killing Rodney Reed without certainty about his guilt may ... erode public trust — not only in capital punishment, but in Texas justice itself.”
Abbott has stopped one execution and allowed 47 to proceed since he took office in 2015. Texas governors can delay an execution by 30 days on their own, or grant a longer reprieve or reduce a death sentence to life in prison with a recommendation by the parole board. Last year, Abbott resentenced Thomas Whitaker to life in prison after a plea from his father, a victim and lone surviving member of his family in Whitaker’s crime. But Reed’s case isn’t about mercy; it questions the guilty verdict handed down and long upheld by the Texas justice system.
In their letter, the lawmakers reference the only time former Gov. George W. Bush stopped an execution and resentenced a man to life in prison. In 1998, Bush commuted the death sentence of Henry Lee Lucas, a convicted serial killer who was also serving multiple life terms and other lengthy sentences. But Lucas’ guilt in the killing that put him on death row was seriously doubted. In his order, Bush said that as a death penalty supporter, “I feel a special obligation to make sure the State of Texas never executes a person for a crime they may not have committed.”
The request is the first action by the caucus, led by state Reps. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, and Jeff Leach, R-Plano, that was created this summer with 12 members, Moody said in a statement. A spokesperson for Abbott did not respond to a request for comment on Reed’s case Monday.
Stites’ body was found partially unclothed in Bastrop County hours after she missed her shift at a grocery store, 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, a local police officer, was an initial suspect, having been found deceptive on two polygraph tests when questioned in Stites’ death. The two lived together in an apartment just above Stites’ mom in the nearby town of Giddings, and he said she had left for work in his truck in the early morning on the day her body was found. Investigators eliminated him as a suspect after they couldn’t account for how he could have gotten back to his apartment by the time Stites was reported missing without his truck, court records state. They never searched the couple’s apartment, Reed's lawyers said.
Fennell's lawyer, Robert Phillips, told the Tribune Monday that the timeline for Fennell to have killed Stites didn't make sense, referring to the trip needed to get from his abandoned truck to his apartment in a town about 30 miles away between her estimated time of death and when Stites' mother woke him after finding out her daughter wasn't at work.
Reed was tied to the murder about a year later when sperm cells found inside Stites’s body were matched to him. Prosecutors called the DNA match the “smoking gun” in Reed’s conviction, arguing Reed stopped Stites while she was driving to work, then sexually assaulted and killed her.
Reed says that he and Stites were in a casual relationship and had consensual sex the day before her disappearance. Others who knew Reed or Stites have since said they had previously seen the two together. But Stites’ mother and sisters have vehemently denied the existence of such a relationship. They, as well as prosecutors for Texas and Bastrop County, remain confident that the state is set to execute the man who abducted, raped and killed Stites.
“Over the past 20+ years, an elaborate story has been created trying to blame my sister’s murder on her fiancé,” Stites’ sisters wrote in a statement provided to Dr. Phil. “... Her life was taken by Rodney Reed.”
Reed’s mother, Sandra, however, is just as sure her son is innocent. Before an anti-death penalty march at the Texas Capitol last month, she spoke about her son with a soft voice but fierce and hopeful eyes.
“I can’t imagine Gov. Abbott or [Texas] Attorney General [Ken] Paxton waiting or standing by while they take an innocent person’s life,” she said, after speaking to dozens of Reed’s supporters and death penalty opponents. “We have proven his innocence; they have not proven his guilt.”
Reed and his lawyers have touched on deep-rooted, systemic racism, an issue that has wrongfully connected black men to violence against white women throughout American history. As a black man convicted by an all-white jury in the murder of a white woman, race has always been embedded in Reed’s case.
In recent years, one of Stites’ coworkers said Stites had told her she was dating a black man named Rodney before her death, according to Reed's filings. But she said in a Dr. Phil interview, and Reed and his lawyers have also claimed, that such a relationship was not common in their town at the time.
“Nothing remains of the State’s trial theory but a lingering prejudice that consensual, interracial relationships did not happen in rural Bastrop, Texas in 1996,” his attorneys wrote in a petition to the U.S Supreme Court recently.
During his decades on death row, Reed, represented by the Innocence Project, has presented to the courts more and more witnesses and experts, including those who testified at his trial, that they say turns guilt away from Reed and toward Fennell.
At his trial in 1998, experts testified that Stites was sexually assaulted just before her death, which the medical examiner estimated happened around the time she would have been driving to work at around 3 a.m. Since then, the medical examiner has clarified in an affidavit that it would be impossible to pinpoint an exact time. Other pathologists brought in by Reed’s lawyers have said Stites was murdered before midnight, when Fennell said she was at home with only him. The medical examiner and other experts also now say there was no evidence the sperm matching Reed was a result of the sexual assault, and could have remained in Stites’ body for more than a day after consensual sex.
Aside from new forensic analyses, Reed’s lawyers have presented multiple new witnesses over the years that corroborate Reed’s claim that he and Stites had a relationship and point more suspicion toward Fennell. Two of her coworkers and a cousin have said they either saw Stites with Reed or talked to Stites about him, according to Reed’s filings. A police officer said she heard Fennell say that he would strangle Stites with a belt if he ever found out she cheated on him.
Since Reed’s current execution date was set, even more witnesses have come forward to implicate Fennell, according to his recent legal filings. A former sheriff’s deputy said he heard Fennell tell Stites’ body at her funeral that she deserved what she got. Another deputy from a different county said Fennell told him before the murder that he believed Stites was having sex with a black man. In the past week, Reed’s lawyers have also revealed that a man who was previously in prison with Fennell told them that Fennell confessed to him that he killed Stites.
Phillips, Fennell's lawyer, said the "late-in-the-game, hail mary" witnesses are unbelievable and pale in comparison to the evidence against Reed. Prosecutors have argued that Reed’s case has already been through the courts for decades, and much of the evidence has been rejected by judges at the local level all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bastrop County Criminal District Attorney Bryan Goertz and Texas Assistant Attorney General Matthew Ottoway said in a filing last month that the evidence against Reed was strong, referencing his semen and the appearance of abduction and sexual assault.
They have also argued that there is significant evidence Stites and Fennell were happy — like Stites’ mother saying the couple was giggling and chasing one another the night before the slaying, yet there is “no credible evidence” to support a consensual relationship between Stites and Reed.
“His friends and family are not credible, and neither are decades delayed and unreliable ‘disclosures,’” the prosecutors wrote of the new witnesses. “And if Reed persists in a consent defense, then his history becomes relevant — he is a serial rapist who does not seek consent.”
Before Stites’ death, Reed was tried but found not guilty in one rape case, according to the filing. He also was indicted in four other suspected rapes or attempted rapes in Bastrop County — two near the same time and place the state said Stites was killed — after he was arrested in Stites’ death, including an alleged assault on a 12-year-old girl. DNA evidence connected him to some of the assaults, the state said, but the cases have never moved forward and Reed has never been found guilty in the cases.
"Any prosecutor will tell you that once you get a death penalty on somebody, it’s a waste of prosecution resources to try him for lesser crimes," Phillips said. "It's no reflection on the credibility of the other witnesses."
Reed denies involvement in any of those cases, and his lead attorney, Bryce Benjet, said the fact that the county has not prosecuted the cases is “very telling." He said in most situations, accusations that haven't been adjudicated aren't used as evidence. His team and Reed have asked for further DNA testing, more advanced than what was available in the 1990s, for those cases, but the state has not allowed it, Benjet said. The courts have also rejected Benjet’s request to test DNA on the belt thought to have strangled Stites.
An appeal in federal court on additional DNA testing, including of the belt, and another in the U.S. Supreme Court about the changed analysis in forensic evidence are pending. Benjet also said his team will file more appeals in the weeks before Reed’s execution based on the new witnesses that have come forward.
But he has also written a letter to Abbott and the parole board, on top of the standard clemency petition filed shortly before an execution asking for a change of sentence or more time for review. Like the lawmakers, most of Reed’s supporters have now turned their attention to Abbott as well, since the case has been in the courts for decades already. As of Monday night, bolstered by celebrity tweets, hundreds of thousands of people had signed an online petition to stop Reed’s execution, according to a website in support of Reed.
Standing in the shadow of the state Capitol, Sandra Reed said last month she is hopeful for a stay, but she doesn’t expect the state to pardon her son and let him come home immediately.
“All we want is a fair trial, that’s all we want.”
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