(From Press Release – Innocence Project)
On Friday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted in favor of a 120-day reprieve of Rodney Reed’s execution. Now, the decision lies with Governor Greg Abbott as to whether to adopt their recommendation before Mr. Reed’s scheduled execution on Wednesday, November 20.
The following statement can be attributed to Bryce Benjet, Mr. Reed’s Innocence Project attorney:
We are thankful that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles have unanimously voted for a 120-day reprieve of Mr. Reed’s execution. This time is critical to allow for proper consideration of the powerful new evidence of his innocence and possible DNA testing that could help prove who actually committed the crime. We hope that Governor Abbott will consider all of the facts in this case, and adopt the Board’s recommendation as soon as possible.
Several more witnesses have come forward with powerful new credible information that exonerates Reed and inculpates Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, Jr., in her murder.
Four new witnesses have been located in the past few days with additional evidence that refutes the state’s portrayal of Fennell and Stites as a happy couple eagerly anticipating their upcoming wedding. This new evidence includes declarations from:
- Richard Derleth, a deputy in the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office, who states that H.E.B. staff members who worked with Stites would warn her when Fennell came to the store so she could hide from him to avoid having him start fights with her;
- Brent Sappington, who stated that while visiting his father, William Sappington, who lived in the apartment directly below Fennell and Stites, he overheard screaming
and banging, and his father confirmed that it was the couple upstairs fighting;
- Vicki Sappington, William Sappington’s daughter-in-law and Brent Sappington’s wife, who stated that William Sappington frequently expressed concern that Fennell was verbally abusive toward Stites, that he feared Fennell was also physically abusive and that he had reported his concerns to local law enforcement, but officers dismissed his concerns; and
- Rebecca Peoples, another co-worker of Stites, who recalled Stites telling her that she was afraid of her fiancé and that she was having an affair with a black man.
“We continue to follow every investigative lead in this case, and this painstaking work continues to bear fruit. These are not people coming out of the woodwork. They are police officers, verified co-workers of the victim, and her neighbors. These people have nothing to gain by telling us what they know; and what we have learned corroborates Mr. Reed’s relationship with Ms. Stites and further implicates Jimmy Fennell in the murder. While Bastrop County law enforcement clearly suspected Fennell in 1996, it is increasingly apparent that their shoddy investigation and rush to judgment against Mr. Reed resulted in the wrong man landing on death row,” said Bryce Benjet, Reed’s lawyer and senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
Throughout the post-conviction investigation, the state’s case has been deconstructed and invalidated by Reed’s defense team. In June 2018, they filed an Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus before a Texas court that included candid admissions of error and affidavits from the same expert witnesses who were called by the state at Reed’s 1998 Bastrop County murder trial. This now-recanted expert testimony provided a crucial link between Reed’s DNA and the murder and was used to refute Reed’s long-maintained insistence that he is innocent of the crime, but was involved in a consensual sexual relationship with Stites.
Additionally, renowned forensic pathologist Michael Baden, M.D. also testified at a hearing in 2017 that the condition of Stites’s body rendered the state’s theory of Reed’s guilt impossible. Where the state argued Stites was killed between 3-5 a.m. on April 23, 1996, the evidence showed that Stites was actually killed before midnight on April 22nd. Baden’s testimony was corroborated by two other leading experts and uncontradicted by the state.
In the 20 years since Reed’s trial, there is substantial evidence that both exonerates Reed and implicates Fennell. New witnesses have come forward, including Stites’ cousin, who was aware that Reed and Stites were romantically involved. Fennell’s best friend at the time, Bastrop Sheriff’s Officer Curtis Davis, has revealed that Fennell gave an inconsistent account of where he was on the night of the murder. Fennell, who was recently released after serving a 10-year prison term for a sex crime, had told his friend he had been out drinking on the night Stites was murdered. He later claimed he was with Stites in their apartment during the time that we now know was the actual time of her death, based on Dr. Baden’s updated testimony. When asked to explain this discrepancy, Fennell declined to testify because his answers might further incriminate him.
Reed is represented by Innocent Project Senior Staff Attorney Bryce Benjet and Andrew MacRae of Levatino Pace PLLC. The Innocence Project, founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, exonerates the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.