A Texas judge on Tuesday ruled that no additional DNA testing is warranted in the case of condemned inmate Rodney Reed, sentenced to die for the 1996 murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites.
Since Reed’s 1998 conviction for Stites’ murder, new evidence has emerged suggesting that investigators failed to sufficiently examine Stites’ fiance Jimmy Fennell—a Texas cop who has a long history of criminal violence and is now serving a prison term for kidnapping and improper sexual contact with a detainee, who says Fennell raped her—as a suspect. The Intercept reported this month that several of Stites’ relatives now believe Reed is innocent, and that Fennell has been repeatedly accused in the past of sexually predatory behavior.
Although numerous pieces of evidence in the case have never been tested—including two torn lengths of the braided leather belt that was used to strangle Stites—Judge Doug Shaver concluded that even if that testing had been done at the time of Reed’s 1998 trial, there is “no reasonable probability” that Reed’s jurors would have acquitted him of the crime. He described Reed’s request for DNA testing as an effort to unreasonably delay his impending execution.
The judge’s decision now moves to Texas’ highest criminal court for review.
Reed was flown to the hearing from Texas’ death row and entered the packed courtroom in his red-and-white-striped prison uniform, the chains around his ankles clanking on the floor as he walked. Family and friends—including extended members of Stites’ family—filled the gallery, while Stites’ two sisters and a nephew sat with friends in the jury box behind him. (When one of Stites’ cousins, who has long questioned Reed’s guilt, tried to sit with the rest of the family, Stites’ older sister Crystal Dobbs told her to sit in the gallery.) Reed remained straight-faced as the judge announced his ruling. As he was led out of the room, he wished his family a happy Thanksgiving.
During the five-hour hearing, lawyers for Reed offered two witnesses who testified that the as-yet-untested evidence would certainly have biological material on it, which would likely yield DNA evidence. Lawyer Bryce Benjet, with the Innocence Project, wondered why Texas would want to carry out Reed’s execution early next year without trying to to ensure that the state is punishing the right person. “Apply the best science to this case and determine what happened [to Stites]—solve this case,” he said.
Stites’ partially clothed body was found just before 3 p.m. on April 23, 1996, on the side of a country road in Bastrop, Texas. She’d been reported missing that morning after she failed to show up for a 3:30 a.m. shift at a local grocery store. The pickup truck she had allegedly driven to work that morning from her home in Giddings, nearly 30 miles away, was found in a high school parking lot roughly 10 miles from where her body was dumped.
The murder went unsolved for nearly a year before police, acting on a hunch, compared semen found inside her to the DNA of 29-year-old Rodney Reed. It was a match, and Reed was charged with Stites’ murder. Although he initially denied knowing Stites, Reed eventually alleged that he had been having an illicit and consensual sexual affair with Stites. The last time he had sex with her, he has said, was nearly two days before her body was found.
Reed’s defenders have long maintained that he was essentially set up by Fennell for his fiancee’s murder, which occurred after Fennell found out about the relationship. As The Intercept detailed in its recent feature on this case, Fennell has a troubling history of violence, including allegations of stalking and rape.
Reed’s appeals have been repeatedly denied by Texas and federal courts, which have discounted evidence of Fennell’s misconduct. In 2009, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that while there was proof that Fennell “engaged in despicable and reprehensible conduct”as a law enforcement officer, it did not exonerate Reed of Stites’ murder.
Although prosecutors have agreed to test some evidence—including hairs found on Stites’ body and swabs from her body—for DNA evidence, they argued yesterday that the belt and other items should not be tested, both because there is no proof that the items contain DNA, and that if they do contain DNA, they have been handled by too many prosecutors, witnesses, and jurors to produce any evidence of probative value.
The latest ruling in Reed’s case goes against a more general trend in Texas. In 2013, by a nearly unanimous vote, state lawmakers approved a measure that requires DNA testing of all available physical evidence in capital cases before trial. The law was signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry and was championed by Attorney General (and incoming governor) Greg Abbott, whose office is currently blocking DNA testing in Reed’s case.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Ottoway argued Tuesday afternoon that testing is unnecessary now because the Stites case was closed in 1998, when Reed was convicted and sentenced to die. “[This is] not a whodunnit case—Rodney Reed did it,” Ottoway said. “And it’s offensive to suggest that someone else is guilty.”
Reed was slated for execution on January 14 but that date has now been moved—at the request of the state —to March 5.
Photo: Jan Janner/American-Statesman