Convicted Texas Murderer Rodney Reed May Know by Halloween about New Trial or Even Exoneration

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Credit…Ricardo Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

By Leslie Ortiz and Jake Wylie

BASTROP COUNTY, TX – District Court Judge J.D. Langley this week heard closing arguments here in an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Rodney Reed, 53, deserves a new trial for the 1996 murder of Stacy Stites.

Both sides had two and a half hours to make their cases. With both sides’ closing arguments finished, the judge will make a proposal later this month to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to determine whether Reed’s conviction will go unchanged, a new trial should be given to him, or Reed should be released.

Reed was convicted in 1998 for the abduction, rape, and murder of Stacey Stites on April 23, 1996. For the 23 years since, Reed has been on death row in Texas for these crimes which he has always maintained he never committed.

Rather, Reed argues that the State’s case against him was built upon false information.

On Nov. 15, 2019, Reed was granted an indefinite stay of execution, just five days before his scheduled execution date, in order to consider his claims of innocence.

This week’s hearing was the culmination of a nine-day process in July, 2021 when Reed’s defense presented new evidence suggesting that Reed and Stites were having an affair, that Stites was in an abusive relationship with her then-fiancé Jimmy Fennell, and that Fennell had murdered Stites.

Reed’s defense argued for a new trial in light of this new evidence, with which they believe no rational jury could have convicted Reed for Stites’ murder.

However, the State maintained that the “[N]ew evidence fails to tell a complete, rational narrative that exonerates Reed.”

State attorney Travis Bragg went over the circumstances of Stites’ life leading up to the 1996 crime. Before her death, Stites had been engaged to Fennell, a local police officer. For 11 months, Fennell had been the main suspect in the case of her murder.

Bragg argued against the concept that Fennell killed Stites, asking what reason Fennell would have to make himself the main suspect for almost a year. The State argued, rather, that Fennell had simply lost the woman he loved.

After DNA evidence (in the form of intact spermatozoa) discovered on Stites’ body matched that of Reed, law enforcement began to investigate Reed as the main suspect. Bragg argues that this forensic evidence linking Reed to the murder was undeniable.

During the original trial, the State had argued that intact spermatozoa do not survive long, and that Stites must therefore have been sexually assaulted at the time of her death.

However, Jane Pucher of the Innocence Project argued this week against portions of the State’s scientific evidence. For instance, the defense provided a forensic expert who testified that sperm can survive for up to a day in the vagina, making the State’s argument unsound.

This evidence seriously puts into question the timeline of Stites’ death, and gives plausibility to the theory that Reed and Stites had known each other.

This theory was suggested by other new evidence, including several witness testimonies that Reed and Stites knew each other and were known to be having an affair together. The State questioned the memory of these witnesses, who came forward decades after the original crime.

Debra Oliver, a member of the Stites family, said that “there was never any indication in 1996 that there was any type of relationship” between Reed and Stites, and that all the witness testimony did was prove to her that Reed “stalked [Stites] and that he knew his victim and planned his attack.”

This corroborates the prosecution’s claims during the original 1998 trial that, after thoroughly searching for proof that Reed and Stites had had a consensual relationship, they had found no such evidence.

The State also pointed out a matter of concern in Reed’s story: Reed had claimed not to know who Stites was at the time of the murder, but after DNA evidence linked Stites and Reed together, his story changed to how they were having a private affair.

Reed’s defense claimed Reed and Stites had kept their relationship secret as Stites was engaged at the time of her relationship with Reed. They argued that Reed, a Black man, and Stites, a white woman, feared racist retaliation in the event their relationship became known.

Reed’s counsel also produced 25-year-old witness interviews which the prosecution from the original trial possessed that suggested that Reed and Stites knew each other.

However, in clear violation of the U.S. Constitution, the prosecution did not provide Reed’s defense team with this information during the original trial.

The new evidence also suggested that Stites had been in an abusive relationship with Fennell at the time of her death.

Reed’s defense argued that a new trial was absolutely necessary, that the new evidence gives legitimate doubt to allegations that Reed committed the murder, and that they wanted the “truth to come out.”

Judge Langley plans to decide whether to recommend a new trial, let the conviction stand, or let Reed free by Halloween. After his recommendation, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will determine next steps in the case.

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About The Author

Leslie Ortiz is a junior at UC Davis majoring in Political Science and English. She is passionate about being a voice for those who are underrepresented and aspires to become a lawyer.

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