By Catherine Hamilton and Natalia Ruvalcaba
BASTROP COUNTY, TX —Judge J.D. Langley of the 21st Judicial District County in Bastrop County, Texas, late Monday declined to advise the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to grant Rodney Reed a re-trial despite concerns over the viability of the conviction.
Jane Pucher, Reed’s Attorney and Senior Staff Attorney at The Innocence Project, issued the following statement about the hope for a retrial:
“We look forward to presenting Mr. Reed’s case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. 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.
“Many highly credible witnesses testified at the evidentiary hearing that Mr. Reed and Stacey Stites knew each other and were intimately involved. Many credible witnesses also testified that Ms. Stites’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, was violent and controlling and had threatened to hurt her if he discovered she was unfaithful.
“Nationally recognized experts have completely debunked the forensic case against Mr. Reed and even the State’s pathology expert has agreed that central points at trial were false. We hope the Court of Criminal Appeals recognizes that he should be given a new trial.”
Reed, a Black man, has been a Texas death row inmate for 23 years after an all-white jury convicted him of the murder of a white woman, Ms. Stites, in 1996. While Stites’ local police officer fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, was the prime suspect originally, Reed was charged when the police found DNA that matched his from Stites’ body. Reed and Stites had been having a consensual sexual relationship.
The evidentiary hearing produced new findings that supported that the State presented false evidence during the trial, and therefore Reed is not guilty.
At the time of the initial trial in 1998, Reed’s defense case was built on his consensual relationship with Stites, but since he sustained little evidence to prove such, the defense argument was considered weak.
The State asserted that none of the investigators could find any evidence of such a relationship despite “searching high and low,” arguing to the jury that Reed’s defense was invalid. It was later found, however, that the State had found crucial evidence in witness accounts that proved the relationship.
Those witness accounts, said Reed’s defense, not only credibly proved that the two were friends, but that they had an intimate relationship with one another, and therefore questions the validity of the State’s findings. This key piece of evidence proves to the court that the DNA evidence that connected Reed to the murder was simply from previous interactions with Stites during their intimate relations.
Stites and Fennell were characterized by the State as the perfect couple awaiting their wedding, to convince the all-white jury of Reed’s guilt, the defense insists, adding that several credible witnesses in the evidentiary hearing showed this might not have been the case.
Witnesses claimed that Stites was terrified of Fennell and that their relationship consisted of frequent, violent arguments. Witnesses also testified that Fennell thought his fiancée was cheating on him with a Black man.
Fennell served a 10-year prison sentence for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman he was protecting as a police officer, then threatening to kill her if she came forward with allegations. During his stay in the prison, Fennell admitted to two fellow inmates that he had murdered Stites.
During the trial, Fennell was characterized as the mourning fiancé, which completely contradicts his confession, said the defense, noting that Fennell also testified that all of the witnesses testifying against him were lying, though his claim was not credible.
While the Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law stated “no reasonable juror would convict Mr. Reed with this full picture of Mr. Fennell,” Reed was found guilty. Even with more than 20 witnesses testifying on behalf of Reed’s defense, the all-white jury found Reed guilty.
Additionally, when Fennell was a suspect earlier in the case, his polygraph tests were found to be deceptive and he had made misleading statements in interrogation, said the defense, adding that even before the discovery of his fiancé’s body, all the money in his bank account was withdrawn.
Reed’s defense team said the evidentiary hearing depicted Reed’s innocence since he was able to present evidence against every point the State made against him.
One crucial piece of evidence Reed’s defense presented was from forensic pathology experts, who established that Stites was murdered before the State’s medical examiner had said, placing her time of death during a time when her fiancé claimed he was with her.
Also central to the hearing was the assertion that intact spermatozoa, or sperm, does not last long. The State, however, was incorrect in this claim and their establishment that Stites must have been sexually assaulted right before she died was also false, said the defense.
The pathology experts for the State testified during the hearing that both of these claims, which were the central arguments that led to Reed’s conviction, were false.