Death Row Defense Team Charges Prosecutors Illegally Hid Evidence from 1998 Jury, 23 Years Ago

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

By The Vanguard Staff  

AUSTIN, TX – An appeal filed here Friday in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals charged the prosecution in a trial more than 20 years ago “illegally concealed statements” that led to a man’s conviction and death sentence, and “suppressed statements” that benefitted a police officer, who was a prime suspect.

The all-white jury convicted Rodney Reed, who is Black, of the murder of Stacy Stites, a white woman, in 1998 after police ignored Stites’ fiancé, a police officer named Jimmy Fennell, asserted Reed’s lawyers.

“Mr. Fennell, Ms. Stites’s fiancé, was the prime suspect, but police turned their attention to Mr. Reed when DNA recovered from Ms. Stites matched Mr. Reed, with whom Ms. Stites was having a relationship,” said defense lawyers Friday.

The defense stopped Reed’s scheduled execution of Nov. 20, 2019, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed his execution to allow the courts to consider new evidence of his innocence.

“At a two week evidentiary hearing in July, 2021, Mr. Reed demonstrated that he did not kidnap, sexually assault, or murder Ms. Stites and that no reasonable jury would now convict him.  While a decision on that hearing is still pending before the CCA, this new writ shows that Mr. Reed’s conviction violates the most central tenets of our Constitution and cannot stand,” said lawyers.

They said “illegally concealed statements from Stacy Stites’s co-workers showing (that Mr. Reed and Ms. Stites knew each other and were romantically involved),” according to a Request for Grant of Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus filed at the 21st Judicial District Court in Bastrop County, Texas and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The application also claims the “State illegally suppressed statements from Ms. Stites’s neighbors about loud domestic violence arguments between Ms. Stites and her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a police officer who was the prime suspect in Ms. Stites’s murder for nearly a year.

The Request for Grant of Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus is here:

The pleading insists that under the U.S. Supreme Court case Brady vs. Maryland (1963), the “State had an affirmative duty to turn over all evidence that was favorable to Mr. Reed’s defense. Instead, the State hid the evidence pointing to Mr. Reed’s innocence for more than two decades.”

“The prosecution’s concealment of statements from Stacey Stites’s co-workers and neighbors is a textbook example of a Brady violation. The constitutional violation is as crystal clear as the remedy: Rodney Reed’s conviction and death sentence must be overturned,” said Jane Pucher, Senior Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project, and one of Mr. Reed’s attorneys.

The defense notes that during Reed’s trial, prosecutors repeatedly told Mr. Reed’s jury—falsely—that investigators “talked to all these people, and not one of them … ever said she was associated with that defendant. Ever. They weren’t dating according to anyone, they weren’t friends, they weren’t associates.”

The application states that the “withheld information is crucial because it demonstrates that the key factual theory of the State’s capital murder case against Mr. Reed – that he had to have kidnapped Ms. Stites because the two were strangers – was false.” (Application at p. 2.)

Defense lawyers report, “Less than a month before Mr. Reed’s July, 2021 evidentiary hearing on a separate petition still pending before the CCA, the State ‘discovered’ exculpatory evidence revealing that before trial at least three of Ms. Stites’s co-workers gave statements to law enforcement and the prosecution that Mr. Reed and Ms. Stites knew each other and were, in Ms. Stites’s own words, ‘good friends.’”

The pleading claims, “[H]ad the Court [of Criminal Appeals] not remanded Mr. Reed’s prior Brady, false testimony and actual innocence claims for a determination on the merits, this information would have remained hidden forever.”

The prosecution disclosed, for the first time to the defense, that “Suzan Hugen, a friend and co-worker of Ms. Stites, gave a statement to police that she saw Mr. Reed and Ms. Stites at the H.E.B. where the women worked and she introduced Mr. Reed to Ms. Hugen as a ‘good or close friend.’”

Hugen told police, added the defense, that Stites and Reed appeared “friendly, giggling, and flirting” and Hugen also told police that “she believed that Mr. Fennell was physically abusive toward Ms. Stites.”

The application also notes, “Two other H.E.B. co-workers of Ms. Stites also told police that Mr. Reed and Ms. Stites knew each other. These pre-trial interviews were not disclosed to Mr. Reed’s attorneys for 23 years,  until the eve of the July, 2021 evidentiary hearing.”

A neighbor downstairs also “reported violent domestic arguments between Ms. Stites and Mr. Fennell to a police officer and a District Attorney in neighboring Lee County, Ted Weems. Although then-District Attorney Weems had an affirmative duty under Brady v. Maryland to turn this information over to Mr. Reed’s attorneys, he — like other police and prosecutors — did not do so,” said the defense.

The pleading also charges, “The State’s own experts conceded at the July, 2021 evidentiary hearing that the central points of the State’s forensic case were false,” and that the prosecution “sponsored false forensic testimony at Mr. Reed’s trial, which it used to argue that Mr. Reed’s defense, that he and Ms. Stites had consensual sex a few days prior to her death, was scientifically impossible.”

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