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Rejecting claims of innocence, judge says Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed shouldn't get new trial

 Rodney Reed was sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop.
Courtesy Of KXAN
Rodney Reed was sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop.

More than two decades after Rodney Reed was sentenced to death for the murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites, doubts about his guilt and the role race might have played in his 1998 conviction continue to haunt this Central Texas town.

On Monday, a judge appointed to reexamine the case slammed the door on Reed’s best chance to avoid execution, releasing his findings that newly presented evidence is not enough to grant Reed a new trial.

The ruling by retired state District Judge J.D. Langley is a dramatic setback for efforts to win Reed’s freedom in a case that has spawned international attention and outrage, often cited by Reed’s supporters as an example of a Black man railroaded by an American criminal justice system.

Langley’s recommendation, issued two weeks after he heard attorneys’ final arguments at the Bastrop County courthouse, now goes to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which has the final say in the matter.

It is an explosive turn after nearly a quarter-century of court battles over the 1996 Bastrop County killing. Reed, now 53, and his supporters have long proclaimed his innocence, pointing blame at Stites’ fiance, Jimmy Fennell. Stites’ family and state attorneys remain convinced of Reed’s guilt.

Reed, a Black man, was found guilty of murdering Stites, a white woman, and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Fennell, a white man, is a former Giddings police officer.

"The Court of Criminal Appeals has repeatedly considered [Reed's] allegations of innocence ... and found them wanting," Langley wrote in his findings.

Langley’s rejection of a new trial comes nearly two years after Reed’s impending execution was halted among deafening calls for further review of his conviction from a bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers, numerous A-list celebrities and millions of people who signed online petitions. After years of appeals, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, ordered the trial court in 2019 to weigh whether Reed is innocent of Stites’ murder.

But the high court can still rule against Langley and grant Reed a new trial. It’s unclear when the court will make a decision.

Reed’s family was hopeful that, after spending more than 23 years on death row, Reed might finally win a new trial, his brother said last month. Langley presided over a nearly two-week hearing this summer to review claims of Reed’s innocence, and examine whether Bastrop County prosecutors withheld evidence or put false evidence before jurors.

“That’s all we ask for is a fair trial,” Rodrick Reed said outside of a Bastrop County courtroom after Langley heard closing arguments in the case. “My brother never had that from the beginning. It was a Jim Crow trial straight out of the gate.”

Reed’s attorneys said Monday that they look forward to presenting Reed’s case to Texas’ high criminal court.

“If a new jury heard the overwhelming evidence of Rodney Reed’s innocence, it would have reasonable doubts. Convicted by an all-white jury, Mr. Reed has spent 23 years on death row for a crime he did not commit,” said Jane Pucher with the Innocence Project. “We hope the Court of Criminal Appeals recognizes that he should be given a new trial.”

The two decades since Rodney Reed’s conviction have seen a simmering mix of emotion, uncertainty and accusations of racism as his appeals have wound their way through the courts.

Stites was engaged to Fennell, but Reed said he and Stites were also romantically involved.

Both Reed and Fennell have been accused of other 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.

In his 50-page ruling, Langley sided with the state’s arguments that Fennell was a credible witness, giving weight to his description of Stites leaving their apartment to go to work the morning before she was found dead. Langley also credited Fennell and family members as depicting the couple’s relationship as happy and that both were excited about their upcoming wedding. Langley discounted the 17 witnesses brought forward by Reed who said either Stites and Reed were at least friendly before her murder, or that Fennell had acted suspiciously after the murder or was violent and controlling toward Stites.

The judge discounted Reed’s witnesses in part, he said, because they “waited decades to bring forth ... ‘recollection.’” Andrew MacRae, one of Reed’s attorneys, however, argued to Langley in October that the witnesses didn’t purposefully wait to speak but were simply never sought out by investigators.

“These people didn’t come forward, we found them,” he countered during his closing arguments.

On April 23, 1996, Stites’ body was found by the side of a rural Bastrop County road, partially unclothed, hours after she missed her shift at a local 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.

Initially, Fennell, a local police officer, was a suspect, found to be deceptive on two polygraph tests when questioned in the killing. But he was cleared after investigators couldn’t account for how he could have gotten back without his truck to the couple’s apartment in the nearby town of Giddings by the time Stites was reported missing, court records state. Fennell told police Stites had taken his truck in the early morning to go to work. When Stites’ mother, who lived in a nearby apartment unit, called to tell him Stites’ coworker had reported she never showed up, Fennell was home.

Reed’s lawyers have argued that Fennell was never properly investigated. Police relied too heavily on his claim that Stites had left for work alive, they said, using that to estimate her time of death without ever searching the couple’s apartment to see if there had been any signs of a struggle. And investigators were late to interview Fennell or the couple’s neighbors, Reed’s attorneys told the court this month. The man who lived directly below the couple told a Giddings-area law enforcement official after the murder that the couple often fought. He was never interviewed by Bastrop investigators, Reed’s attorneys said.

Semen found in Stites’ body led police to believe she was sexually assaulted before being murdered. Nearly a year after her death, sperm cells from Stites’ body were found to match Reed, which prosecutors called the “smoking gun” of the crime. Prosecutors have since argued that Reed stopped Stites while she was driving to work, then sexually assaulted and killed her.

“The truth is, your honor, that Rodney Reed kidnapped, brutally raped and violently murdered Stacey Stites,” Travis Bragg, an assistant Texas attorney general, told Langley last month.

Reed counters that he and Stites were in a casual relationship and had consensual sex the day before her disappearance. Stites’ relatives deny the two knew each other before her death. Numerous people who knew Stites have said since Reed’s conviction that they saw the two together.

In the decades since the murder, forensic experts have changed their statements on what the presence of sperm means. At Reed’s trial, experts testified that Stites was sexually assaulted just before her death, and that the sperm cells would have been unlikely to remain in Stites’ body for more than 24 hours. The medical examiner and other experts have since said there was no evidence the sperm matching Reed was a result of sexual assault, and it could have remained in Stites’ body for more than a day after consensual sex.

Reed’s attorneys also argue that forensic examination, like the stiffness of her body and pooling of her blood, makes it more likely Stites died before the time when Fennell said she left for work, despite her being in her work clothes. With their own experts knocking down the finding of rape and presuming a time of death when Fennell said he was alone with Stites, Reed’s attorneys say his innocence claim is strong.

“Without [forensic evidence], the only thing the state has is the word of Jimmy Fennell,” Pucher said in court.

Langley sided with state forensic experts, however, who argued Stites could have been sexually assaulted, and gave credence to the time of death provided based on Fennell’s testimony of her leaving for work, in part because Stites’ body was found in her work clothes.

As the years have gone by, defense attorneys have found numerous witnesses to bolster Reed’s claim that he and Stites had an affair, and point more suspicion on Fennell. Several people, including some of Stites’ co-workers, said they had seen Stites and Reed together previously. Some, Reed’s attorneys argue, told law enforcement at the time of the murder about seeing Reed and Stites together, but such evidence was never investigated or provided to defense attorneys.

Other people have since told attorneys that Fennell and Stites’ relationship was troubled. A fellow police officer said she heard Fennell say that he would strangle Stites with a belt if he ever found out she cheated on him. A former sheriff’s deputy said he heard Fennell tell Stites’ body at her funeral that she deserved what she got. And another deputy from a different county said Fennell told him before the murder that he believed Stites was having sex with a Black man. A man who was in prison with Fennell after the 2007 kidnapping and rape case told attorneys that Fennell confessed to him that he killed Stites.

To Stites’ family, the prosecution and Langley, the newly discovered witnesses are not credible. State attorneys had a memory expert testify that people can falsely remember things because of media influence. They hope Reed’s conviction will be upheld and the appeals will end, pointing to his sperm in Stites’ body and his indictments in four other suspected or attempted rapes in Bastrop County — two near the same time and place the state said Stites was killed.

“Rodney Reed is a serial rapist and a murderer,” said Debra Oliver, Stites’ older sister, outside the courtroom last month. “Texas needs to finally have justice prevail, and enough is enough. We’ve been dealing with this for 25 years.”

But for Reed and his attorneys, without forensic evidence proving Stites was raped and died after she left for work, the witnesses who have since been discovered by investigative attorneys are more credible than Fennell. During the hearing before Langley, MacRae scoffed at the prosecution and Fennell for discounting the many witnesses as lying or misremembering, yet insisting that Fennell is truthful.

“People who have no axe to grind and who corroborate each other: not credible,” MacRae said, impersonating the prosecution’s arguments. “A convicted rapist and kidnapper who stands to go to prison for the rest of his life if Rodney Reed is acquitted and who says everyone else is lying: he’s credible.”

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its online hotline.

From The Texas Tribune

Jolie McCullough reports on criminal justice issues and policy for The Texas Tribune. She came to the Tribune in early 2015 from the Albuquerque Journal, where she worked for four years on breaking news and data-driven projects. She is a graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; while there, she interned as a reporter and online producer at the Arizona Republic and served as the web editor of the student-run newspaper, the State Press.