Is Texas Getting Ready to Kill An Innocent Man?

On a late October night in 2007, 20-year-old Connie Lear was playing cards and drinking with friends at an apartment complex just outside Austin, Texas, when she caught her fiance playing footsie under the table with another woman. Lear stormed out; her fiance followed her to the parking lot, where they got into a shouting match. Neighbors called the police.

Among the cops who arrived at the scene was Jimmy Lewis Fennell, Jr., a 34-year-old police sergeant with the Georgetown, Texas, Police Department. Lear’s fiance was handcuffed and taken into custody by other officers, leaving her alone with Fennell. “I said, where are they going?” Lear recalls, “And I started crying at this point.” Fennell assured her that her fiance was not under arrest; he was merely being taken to a nearby hotel to calm down and sober up. But “I kept throwing a fit and raising hell,” Lear recalls, “and finally Fennell said, ‘well I’ll take you to him then.’”

Sergeant Jimmy Fennell

Jimmy Lewis Fennell, Stacey Stites’ fiance.

But that’s not where they went. Instead, Fennell pulled into a well-lit public recreation area. They got out, and Fennell slammed Lear up against the back of his squad car and held her down. He took off his duty belt and laid it on the trunk, calmly pointing out each of the weapons and tools he carried with him. “Then he took his gun, removed it…[and] laid it on the trunk against my head,” she said. “And he raped me.”

When he was finished, Fennell made a threat: if she ever dared to report what happened, and if he ever went to prison for it, when he got out he would hunt her down and kill her. He then drove Lear back to the apartment complex where he gave her his business card and said he would be back to see her again — the next evening, in fact, after his kid’s soccer game.

Lear was terrified. Nevertheless, she called 911 and reported the attack. But before the ambulance arrived, Fennell returned, along with other officers. She ran but they caught up with her, taking her phone, and forcing her into a police car. There, she says, she was told to face the in-car camera and say that she’d made up the story about Fennell’s attack. She did. She was then taken to jail for public intoxication.

Despite his attempt to cover up his crime, Fennell was eventually arrested and ultimately pleaded guilty to kidnapping and improper sexual contact with a person in custody. He received a ten-year sentence and is currently slated for release in September 2018. Lear also filed a civil suit against Fennell and the City of Georgetown, which was settled for $100,000. But for her, the story doesn’t end there. Fennell’s arrest prompted several other women to come forward alleging similar threats and assaults, including one additional rape. These episodes had either never been reported or else were swept under the rug by local law enforcement. Together these incidents revealed a portrait of Fennell as a dangerous man who abused his police credentials with impunity.

Nearly a dozen people related to Stites, many of whom have had doubts about the case for years, are breaking their own silence, calling for Reed’s life to be spared.

In the meantime, Lear kept her identity a secret, mainly out of fear of Fennell and his fellow officers. Although Lear eventually told her story anonymously, she recently decided it was time to come forward, revealing her identity to The Intercept for the first time. She did so because she believes she can help reveal the truth about a harrowing and even more serious crime, committed against a different Texas woman. Eleven years before he raped and threatened to kill Lear, Fennell’s own fiancee, 19-year-old Stacy Stites, was found brutally murdered along a country road in Bastrop, Texas. That crime eventually sent a man to death row. His name is Rodney Reed—and he is scheduled to die in January. Lear, like many people who have followed the case in Texas —believe that Reed is innocent. And they believe that the real killer is Jimmy Fennell.

Connie Lear is not alone in coming forward now that an execution date has been set. Nearly a dozen people related to Stites, many of whom have had doubts about the case for years, are breaking their own silence, calling for Reed’s life to be spared. One is Stites’ cousin, Judy Mitchell, who is convinced Fennell is the real killer. “I just know he did [it],” she told The Intercept. “We’ve got to do something to stop this execution.”

A Brutal Crime and a Small Town Secret

A land appraiser searching for wildflowers found Stacey Stites’ body on the side of the road just before 3 p.m. on April 23, 1996.

Photo: Jana Birchum

Crime scene photo

A length of braided belt was at the edge of the road. Steps away was a wadded up white t-shirt. Beyond that was Stites’ body, twisted at the waist, her arms splayed above her head. She was wearing a black bra, but no shirt. Her pants, the zipper broken, were open, exposing her panties, which were bunched up awkwardly. Her neck was bruised by a ropy ligature mark where she had been strangled with her own belt.

Stites had been reported missing that morning, around 7 a.m., after she failed to show up to her 3:30 a.m. shift stocking produce at a Bastrop grocery store. The pickup truck she allegedly left her home in that morning—a red Chevy that belonged to Fennell—was found in a high school parking lot, roughly 10 miles from her body.

Stites had only recently started working the early-morning shift, reportedly to earn extra money to pay for her upcoming wedding to Fennell. The couple lived in an apartment above Stites’ mother, Carol, in the nearby town of Giddings, where Fennell was a rookie police officer. Carol testified in 1998 that when she received word from Stites’ co-worker that her daughter hadn’t shown up for work, she called Fennell, who was home upstairs and who quickly set off to look for her. Carol also testified that Fennell had planned to drive her daughter to work that day. But Fennell told police that Stites drove herself in his truck, and that he was asleep when she left home.

It was this claim by Fennell—that Stites left for work alone around 3 a.m.—that would ultimately dictate the official timeline of the crime and the path of the investigation. Investigators never asked for a detailed accounting of the couple’s activities on the day leading up to Stites’ disappearance. More surprising, they made no effort to search the couple’s home, even though that was ostensibly the last place Stites was seen alive. The red Chevy was released to Fennell less than a week after the murder. He traded it in immediately.

Fennell could not prove his whereabouts in the early morning hours of April 23. Detectives administered two separate polygraph tests and Fennell’s responses were shown to be deceptive in both — including when asked directly if he had strangled Stites. Yet the investigators— including detectives from a department neighboring his own — ultimately dismissed their fellow cop as a suspect and the crime went unsolved for almost a year.

But their attention eventually turned to a 29-year-old black man named Rodney Reed. Reed had been accused of a number of sexual assaults; he was tried in one case but ultimately acquitted. On a hunch, in April 1997, police compared DNA from semen found inside Stites with DNA collected from an unrelated case in which Reed had been accused of assaulting a woman. It was a match.

The DNA was all the state needed. The theory of the case came together quickly—if illogically—after that. Sometime after 3 a.m., authorities concluded, as Stites was on her way to work, Reed—who by the prosection’s account was alone and on foot without a vehicle —somehow overtook her as she drove along in Fennell’s truck. He kidnapped, assaulted, and strangled her, then dumped her body by the side of the road. He then abandoned the truck in the school parking lot, running off to the home nearby that he shared with his parents while leaving no physical trace of himself behind aside from his semen.

However far-fetched the state’s version of events sounded, Reed initially refused to explain how his DNA had been found in Stites. When questioned by police, he denied knowing Stites at all, apart from “what was on the news.” But by the time he went on trial in May 1998, Reed had admitted that this was a lie: He had known Stites. In fact, he says, he was having an affair with her, he was just afraid to admit it. In a small southern town like Bastrop, an affair between a black man and a young white woman engaged to a white police officer was not only scandalous, it could be extremely dangerous if it was revealed.

In a small southern town like Bastrop, an affair between a black man and a young white woman engaged to a white police officer…could be extremely dangerous if it was revealed.

Reed’s defense at trial was that the semen found inside Stites had been the result of an ongoing, secret, illicit, and consensual sexual relationship. The couple’s last encounter was nearly two days before she was found murdered, Reed has said. While it might sound like a convenient, outlandish claim concocted to explain the presence of his DNA, numerous witnesses have said that they knew about the relationship. There was a local bail bond agent, a bar owner, and a neighbor of the Reed family who each claimed to have seen the couple together around the small town. And there were also Reed’s friends and relatives who told similar stories of seeing Reed and Stites together, behaving affectionately. But those sightings were the only evidence of the affair and there was nothing more concrete to back them up—no existing phone records, for example, because the Reed family did not have a phone in the mid-90s.

Save for the bartender and a Reed family friend, none of Reed’s witnesses were called to testify for the defense. One of his court-appointed lawyers later said that was done deliberately, in order to avoid tough cross-examinations that might bring out their bias or other complications — like individual run-ins with the law.

Among those who were willing to testify was a cousin of Reed’s named Chris Aldridge. Not only had Aldridge seen Reed and Stites together, he also provided Reed with an alibi for the early morning hours of April 23. The pair was hanging outside in a lot next door to Reed’s family’s house until almost 5 a.m. that day, Aldridge said in a 2000 affidavit, and later walked to work together. Aldridge also said that Jimmy Fennell had discovered the affair between Reed and his fiancee. In another affidavit from 1999, he recounted an occasion early in 1996 when he and Reed were stopped by a Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office patrol car while walking down the street. Inside the car were two men, one of whom was a plain-clothed Fennell. “[O]fficer Fennel[l] told Rodney that he knew about him and Sticys [sic] and that Rodney was going to pay,” Aldridge recalled. That account was corroborated by another man, James Robertson, who said in a 2000 affidavit that he ran into Aldridge and Reed that same day and that they related details of the encounter to him. “Jimmy Fennell…had stopped with another officer and threatened Rodney,” Robertson recalled, “stateing [sic] that he knew of Rodney’s and Stacey’s relationship, and that Rodney would, in some way, pay.” At trial, Fennell denied knowing Reed prior to Stites’ murder.

But even if Reed’s lawyers had called all available witnesses, it is not clear that the jury would have been persuaded. At trial, Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo testified that the semen found inside of Stites had been deposited “quite recently,” and a crime scene analyst’s testimony indicated that, because the sperm had heads and tails that remained intact, it had been deposited no more than 26 hours before Stites’ death. Bayardo also testified that Stites had likely been sodomized “around the time of death,” estimated to be roughly 3 a.m. This clearly contradicts Reed’s account, which places his last sexual encounter with Stites on April 21. While there was ample scientific evidence at the time that intact sperm can survive longer than 26 hours in the vaginal cavity, Reed’s defense attorneys failed to call their own medical expert, and the testimony of Bayardo and the state crime scene investigator went unchallenged.

That Reed’s defense attorneys would fail to mount a robust challenge to the state’s case should have come as no surprise. His court-appointed lawyers had repeatedly told the trial judge that they were not ready for trial by the time jury selection began in late March 1998. Indeed, billing records reflect that neither of Reed’s attorneys spent more than 40 hours working on the case until roughly a week before jury selection began. Nonetheless, the judge denied their requests for continuance.

After a two-week trial, the jury, which included no black members, convicted Reed.

A punishment hearing followed. Seeking the death penalty, prosecutors offered a number of witnesses who testified that they’d been sexually assaulted or otherwise attacked by Reed. Although Reed had never been convicted in any of these cases, the state of Texas allows such unsubstantiated allegations to be presented to a jury deliberating in a capital cases. Reed’s conduct had long put him on a collision course with the criminal justice system, the prosecutor told the jury. “It was inevitable that we would be here at some point.”

On May 29, 1998, Reed was sentenced to death.

reed-familyRodney Reed’s parents

A Cop’s Violent Past

For the last 18 years, Reed has maintained his innocence. His family members, as well as local activists, have insisted that Fennell was never sufficiently investigated as a suspect.

Investigators have countered that it was simply implausible for Fennell to have traveled the roughly 22 miles from Giddings to the site where Stites’ body was dumped, then driven another 10 miles to the Bastrop High School where the truck was abandoned — it was first spotted around 5:30 a.m. by a Bastrop cop who had already driven by the parking lot earlier in the morning as part of his routine patrol of the area — and then walked 30 miles back to Giddings in time to answer the 6:45 a.m. call from Carol reporting that Stites was missing. “Logistically speaking,” lead police investigator Lynn “Rocky” Wardlow concluded, “it was not possible.”

For the last 18 years,
Reed has maintained his innocence.

But it was Wardlow who made the decision not to search for evidence at the home of Fennell and Stites, despite the fact that it was the last place she was supposedly seen alive. This was just one questionable decision amid myriad other problems with the investigation he led. Indeed, Reed’s defenders have long questioned the state’s processing of the crime scene, charging not only that analysts mishandled and potentially contaminated evidence, but also that the state withheld scientific evidence that did not support its theory of the crime.

In particular, two empty beer cans that were recovered near Stites’ body and examined for DNA revealed a potential match on one to Giddings Police Officer David Hall—a colleague, good friend, and neighbor of Fennell’s. But that information, contained in a Texas Department of Public Safety report dated May 13, 1998—in the middle of Reed’s trial—was never disclosed to Reed’s defense. (At a 2001 hearing regarding the beer can evidence, Hall denied having anything to do with Stites’ death.)

For years, Reed’s defenders pointed to the beer cans as evidence that other officers were complicit in or else helped cover up the real story behind Stites’ murder. Police and court records reviewed by The Intercept reveal that Fennell has a long history of alleged sexual misconduct and violence while on the job, and that the behavior was at times aided by other officers—either directly, as in the case of Connie Lear, or by omission, with complaints seemingly ignored or summarily dismissed. At least three alleged incidents of misconduct occurred before Reed was even tried. In one case, a woman named Wendy Wallace alleged that she had been followed around Giddings by Fennell and later received a bizarre late-night request from a police dispatcher that she step outside of her home to meet with Fennell’s friend and colleague, Hall.

In a second episode, just two months before Stites’ murder, Fennell and another Giddings police officer initiated a pursuit of a man named Mario Murillo. In a civil complaint, which was eventually settled, Murillo claimed that the two officers had previously harassed him, promising that “whenever they saw him they were going to beat him and arrest him.” On that day, Murillo alleged, the two officers beat him up and Fennell held a gun to his head. The county sheriff had to be called in to calm the situation.

The third episode took place after Stites’s death. A woman named Pam Duncan, who began dating Fennell just three months after the murder, complained to police that when she tried to break off their relationship he began to stalk and threaten her. Fennell was “possessive and jealous,” while the two were dating, she said in an affidavit, and would harass men he thought were “flirting” with her. After the breakup, she said that he “stalked me for months,” driving by her house “night after night” shining a spotlight through the windows, or standing outside screaming at her, “calling me a ‘bitch’” and other names. She was so frightened that she finally filed a police report, “and another officer came by and told me they would make sure he left me alone,” she said. But when a friend later went to the police station in search of the report, she said, “they couldn’t find it.”

These incidents, among others, were not disclosed to, or discovered by, Reed’s trial attorneys. The prosecution was able to portray of Fennell as a stoic civil servant distraught at the loss of his bride-to-be, an image that went almost entirely unchallenged. Even as Reed’s own run-ins with the law were used to send him to death row, documented violence committed by Fennell went unmentioned.

Indeed, though there is little indication that police or defense attorneys did much to pursue it, there was evidence that Fennell and Stites had a rocky relationship—and that Fennell was not careful to conceal his jealousy and paranoia. One particularly damning report came from a Dallas-area police officer after Reed was convicted. The officer claimed that, at a 1995 police training on crime-scene investigation, Fennell had said that he would strangle his girlfriend if he ever caught her cheating—and would use a belt to avoid leaving fingerprints around her neck. (In his trial testimony, Fennell has denied killing Stites.)

Reed’s attorneys have mentioned some of the allegations made against Fennell in state and federal appellate filings. But the courts have remained unmoved, finding repeatedly that the defense witnesses are not credible. As for the Fennell-related evidence, in 2009, Texas’ highest criminal court concluded that “other than showing that Fennell has engaged in despicable and reprehensible conduct as an officer…the information does not exonerate Reed of Stacey’s murder.” The DNA found in Stites still links Reed to her death, the courts have held.

But in 2012, Bayardo came forward to challenge this link. In a declaration for the court, Bayardo, the same medical examiner who testified for the state at Reed’s trial, said that it had been incorrect to assume that “spermatozoa can remain intact in the vaginal cavity for no more” than 26 hours. The fact that Bayardo saw “very few” such sperm were found in Stites suggests they had been there for a longer period of time. Moreover, while he still concluded that there was evidence that Stites had been sodomized, he said that her injuries were “more consistent with penetration by a rod-like instrument, such as a police baton.”

Nevertheless, Texas and federal courts have remained unswayed, and have so far refused to grant a hearing to consider this medical evidence. In July, eight retired state and federal judges filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, urging it to conclude that Reed should be granted an evidentiary hearing on the scientific evidence — a hearing the Fifth Circuit had decided was not warranted based only on the “cold record” in the case. “That is not how our system of justice is designed to operate,” the judges wrote.

On Nov. 3, the high court rejected Reed’s petition without comment.

In July, Reed was given an execution date of January 14, 2015. Now his lawyer, Bryce Benjet, who works with the Innocence Project, is fighting to secure DNA testing for crucial pieces of evidence—among them, the belt used to strangle Stites, as well as her torn pants, parts of which have never been tested. But the state is fighting those efforts, citing numerous procedural limitations.

“[F]rankly, what we’re asking for is, I think, a pretty conservative thing,” Benjet says, “To do DNA testing of evidence before you execute someone.” A November 25 hearing has been scheduled to consider the request.

Stites’ relatives would like to see that request granted. Her cousin Judy says she and other extended family members had long hoped that the justice system would acknowledge and remedy the problems with the case without their having to go public — as extended family, they didn’t believe it was their place to do so. But with the execution date drawing near, she is now writing a group letter to outgoing Gov. Rick Perry asking him to stop the execution. “We have to stand up and say, look, there are too many questions to execute a man without them all being answered,” Judy says. “I believe Jimmy Fennell is guilty and I can’t in good conscience” keep quiet any longer.

Connie Lear.

Connie Lear agrees. After years of wanting to bury what happened to her, she says, it took Reed’s execution date to make her realize she had no choice. By staying silent, she might be complicit in a tragic miscarriage of justice. “There’s not enough evidence pointing toward [Reed],” she says. “I think they’re going to kill an innocent man, I honestly do.”

“They want to kill him,” she added. “Be done with it, and bury it in the ground.”

Lear acknowledges that she does not have direct evidence that Fennell is the man who killed Stacey Stites. But she knows a side of him that his defenders—and jurors at Reed’s trial—do not. “They all sit there and say Fennell didn’t kill her,” she says, “and yet he threatened to kill me. People say, ‘Oh, he’s not going to do that.’ I say, what if you’re wrong?”

Edited by Liliana Segura. Fact-checking by Alleen Brown.

Main Photos: Jana Birchum

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