Defense Lawyers for Man on Death Row Issue Censure of Prosecutors and Judge Following Recent Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Ruling 

Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

By Claire Hsu 

AUSTIN, TX – The attorney for Rodney Reed and the Innocence Project last week issued statements censuring the judge and prosecutors who prosecuted his initial trial, following the recent Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decision to deny Reed a new trial, according to the Innocence Project and The Texas Tribune.

Reed was convicted by an “all-white jury” of kidnapping, sexually assaulting, and murdering Stacey Stites, a 19-year-old woman from Bastrop, Texas, in 1996, according to Time Magazine.

Time Magazine reported police began suspecting Reed a year after they located Stites’ body and allegedly discovered his DNA on her. Time Magazine also details that Reed explained that he and Stites were in a relationship that was sexual and consensual and that he had met her before the day she was reported missing.

During the trial, the prosecution used DNA evidence to propel their case against him, highlighting the DNA on Stites’ body and her content relationship with fiancé Jimmy Fennell, explained Time Magazine.

Reed’s attorneys focused on Fennell during their defense arguments, revisiting the fact that he was the initial suspect of Stites’ murder and some DNA evidence discovered on her was not Reed’s, said Times Magazine,.

The prosecution recommended the death penalty because of previous accusations of assaulting multiple women—and even though he was charged and acquitted for one of these offenses, with no evidence pointing to the other, the jury decided Reed was guilty of Stites’ murder and agreed with the death penalty, said Time.

Reed’s attorney Bryce Benjet stated, “In a rural part of Texas the accusation of a Black man raping a white woman is essentially a charge,” according to Time Magazine.

In June, after over 20 years, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals heard Reed’s arguments for a potential trial to revisit his conviction for the murder of Stites, which had paused Reed’s execution.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied the possibility of another trial, with Judge Jesse Mclure stating, “Even if all of Reed’s post-trial evidence is taken into account, Reed still has not demonstrated that he is more-likely-than-not innocent of Stacey’s murder,” according to The Texas Tribune.

The attorneys of Reed introduced individuals who confirmed his relationship with Stites at the time of her murder and individuals who claimed that her fiancé Jimmy Fennell abused her and was potentially aware of her and Reed’s relationship, said The Texas Tribune.

According to the statement issued by Reed’s attorney and Attorney Jane Puscher from the Innocence Project, “At least three witnesses testified at the evidentiary hearing that Jimmy Fennell, Ms. Stites’ fiancé knew Ms. Stites was having an affair with a Black man and therefore had a motive to murder her. Two other witnesses testified that Mr. Fennell confessed to killing Ms. Stites.”

The Innocence Project charges Reed’s attorneys claimed prosecutors responsible for his case infringed his Brady vs. Maryland rights, in which the US Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution must present all evidence even if it sides with the defendant.

The prosecutors in Reed’s initial trial concealed evidence that could have indicated Reed’s innocence and didn’t inform the jury that individuals heard Stites’ and Fennell’s verbal altercation, the Innocence Project details, adding that it has been recently disclosed that the prosecutors and the police had statements from acquaintances of Stites who affirmed her and Reed’s relationship.

Reed’s attorney and Attorney Puscher expressed in their statement, “The suppressed evidence was crucial because it demonstrated that the key factual theory of the State’s capital murder case against Mr. Reed… was patently false… This evidence was critical because it undercut the prosecution’s argument that Ms. Stites and Mr. Fennell were a happy couple looking forward to their wedding.”

According to the Innocence Project, the system disallowed Reed from seeking DNA testing on potential evidence that could have demonstrated his innocence, which was brought to the Court of Appeals and decided against Reed.

In April 2022, however, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the decision infringed Reed’s constitutional rights and was changed, stated the Innocence Project.

The attorneys of Reed also introduced experts who stated Stites’ murder could have occurred before the time her fiancé Jimmy Fennell had recalled her leaving, reports The Texas Tribune.

Reed’s attorney and Attorney Puscher also criticized Judge Langley in their statement, saying, “Judge Langley rubber stamped the State’s Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law… The abdication of the judge’s duty to be an unbiased deliberative, independent fact finder cannot be violated, especially when an innocent man’s life is at stake.”

Attorney Puscher and Reed’s attorney added in their statement, “It is not plausible that Judge Langley could find every witness for the State to be credible and every witness called by Mr. Reed to be not credible.”

The defense lawyers concluded, “In this case, the State hid evidence pointing to Mr. Reed’s innocence for more than two decades. Mr. Reed’s conviction and death sentence violates the most central tenets of our Constitution and cannot stand. We will continue to fight for Mr. Reed’s freedom and bring him home to his family.”

About The Author

Claire Hsu is an undergraduate student at UC Davis majoring in Political Science and minoring in Sociology. She is interested in policies related to advocating for API rights and prisoner's rights across California. After graduation, Claire plans on attending law school and pursuing a career in law. She is most passionate about criminal law and intellectual property law.

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