Judge in Rodney Reed Death Row Evidentiary Hearing Condemned by Innocence Project

By Amy Berberyan

AUSTIN, TX – This past week, the Innocence Project released a statement condemning Judge J. D. Langley for abandoning his duty as a neutral party during Rodney Reed’s evidentiary hearing here.

Though Reed was initially set to be executed in November 2019, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) extended the date to allow the courts to consider new evidence pertaining to Reed’s innocence. The case was then returned to the 21st District Court in Bastrop, TX, for an evidentiary hearing.

According to the press release by the Innocence Project, “despite the new, overwhelming evidence of innocence presented at the evidentiary hearing, Judge J.D. Langley adopted, nearly verbatim the State’s proposed order, including several obvious factual misrepresentations.”

The Innocence Project called on the CCA to reject the trial court’s copy-and-pasted order because it shows that Langley “has failed in his duty to carefully and independently assess the credibility of 47 witnesses.”

Specifically, it results in the court finding all of the State’s witnesses credible and all of Reed’s witnesses uncredible.

“The abdication of a judge’s duty cannot be tolerated, especially when an innocent man’s life is at stake,” said Jane Pucher, Senior Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project and one of Reed’s attorneys.

“The CCA entrusted Judge Langley with making impartial findings and independent assessments of witnesses’ credibility, supported by the evidence,” she continued. “This did not happen.”

Reed was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death row on May 28, 1998, for his alleged rape and murder of Stacy Stites in Bastrop, in 1996. Stites was strangled to death with a belt after being beaten and sodomized. Critically, this belt went untested for DNA, the IP points out.

The fact that the wet spit on Stites’ chest and the semen inside of her body matched with Reed’s DNA was used by the prosecution as the basis of their argument against Reed.

Reed claimed he did not know Stites initially, and then said they were having an affair after his DNA matched. No witnesses, including Stites’ family, confirmed this during the initial trial, according to media court reports.

At least eight witnesses confirmed the relationship between Stites and Reed during the evidentiary hearing. At least nine testified that the relationship between Stites and her fiancé Jimmy Fennell was unhappy, which directly contradicted Fennell’s testimony.

Fennell and his family were the only witnesses to testify that the relationship was peaceful, and were also counted as credible by the court.

According to the Innocence Project, “the court clearly erred in crediting Fennell’s self-serving and uncorroborated testimony over more reliable witnesses who, unlike Fennell, had no motive to lie.”

They maintain that he had every reason to lie to keep Reed’s conviction from being overturned, because he would then be the prime suspect of the murder.

Reed has been linked to numerous rapes in the past. These includes the brutal sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl, a disabled woman who said Reed would “hurt her” if she did not have sex with him, the mother of his children who later dropped her charges, and a woman he kidnapped and attempted to rape.

Intercept reporter Jordan Smith said that these unadjudicated rape allegations “are not evidence that Reed is guilty of assaulting or killing Stites.”

An alternative suspect of the crime is Stites’ fiancé, Fennell, who previously spent a decade in prison after kidnapping and allegedly raping a woman in 2007 while on duty as a police officer.

In 2014, one of Stacy’s former coworkers, Alicia Slater, contacted Reed’s defense lawyers and claimed Stites had “told [her] that she [Stites] was sleeping with a Black guy named Mr. Reed and that she didn’t know what her fiancé would do if he found out.”

The Innocence Project noted that when questioned about why she had waited nearly two decades to come forward with this information, Slater said she “knew Jimmy Fennell was a cop and didn’t trust the police in Bastrop.” She stated she was afraid of any repercussions for her family if she spoke up.

Fennell has never been charged for Stites’ murder and denied killing his former fiancé, through a lawyer. He claimed that Slater was lying about the affair between Stites and Reed, and that Slater could not know that because “[Stites and Fennell] were together all the time,” according to media reports.

Arthur J. Snow, Jr., a man who served time with Fennell in prison, said “he heard Mr. Fennell confess to the murder of Ms. Stites” and another witness said that Fennell revealed he meant to kill Stites if he ever caught her “messing around.”

A third witness and former friend of the couple, Charles W. Fletcher, claimed that Fennell knew Stites was “cheating on him.” A final witness, a former sheriff’s deputy, claimed that Fennell looked at Stites’ body during her funeral and said, “You got what you deserved.”

Fennell asserted that all 24 of Reed’s witnesses were lying at the evidentiary hearing.

Furthermore, two nationally recognized forensics experts “agreed with Mr. Reed’s experts on several points, including that the State sponsored false scientific testimony at Mr. Reed’s trial.” The court, however, refused to credit this.

Despite former Travis County Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo claiming key points of his trial testimony were “incorrect” and not “medically or scientifically supported,” the court refused to account for Bayardo’s recanting of his testimony, recounted the Innocence Project.

Additionally, the state “illegally suppressed statements from Ms. Stites’ neighbors about loud domestic violence arguments between Ms. Stites and Mr. Fennell” according to the Innocence Project’s press release.

William Sappington, Stites’ downstairs neighbor, allegedly reported these violent domestic arguments between the couple to District Attorney Ted Weems. Weems, who was required to turn this information over to Reed’s defense team, did not do so, according to Reed’s supporters.

According to the Innocence Project, this, in addition to disregarding Reed’s witnesses, encompasses two Brady violations that “follow a pattern of earlier Brady violations that are still pending before the CCA and are detailed in Mr. Reed’s 2019 habeas petition.”

“For 23 years, prosecutors illegally hid evidence that could have exonerated Reed,” said Pucher. “Under the U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. 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,” she added. “Under the black letter law of Brady, Mr. Reed’s conviction and death sentence must be overturned.”

About The Author

Amy is a UCLA student majoring in English and Philosophy. She is interested in law and is from Burbank, California.

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