Nine days before Rodney Reed was scheduled to die in Texas for a crime he swears he didn’t commit, the state’s highest criminal court issued a stay of execution. The order came down late Monday afternoon, in response to an appeal citing new and compelling scientific evidence that challenges the state’s timeline of events in the 1996 murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites, which sent Reed to death row.

Reed’s attorney Bryce Benjet, with the Innocence Project, praised the court’s decision in a statement to reporters, saying his office was “extremely relieved” and that it expected “there will be proper consideration of the powerful new evidence of his innocence.”

Specifically at issue is Stites’s time of death. The state maintains she was abducted and murdered sometime just after 3 a.m. on April 23, 1996, after leaving her home in Giddings, Texas, to make the 30-mile drive to neighboring Bastrop for her grocery store shift. Stites’s body was found that afternoon, partially-clothed and dumped in a wooded area roughly 10 miles outside Bastrop.

But, as The Intercept reported last week, three renowned forensic pathologists now say that timeline is off by hours. The doctors say that their review of the physical evidence — including crime scene video and photos — reveals decompositional changes to Stites’s body that place her actual time of death well before midnight on April 22. They say blood pooling visible under her skin indicates that Stites was killed and her body left in a forward slumping position for up to six hours before she was moved and dumped in the woods.

If this is the case, Reed cannot be responsible for the crime. According to statements made to police by Stites’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell Jr., he was alone with Stites in the couple’s apartment that night, from 8 p.m. on, until she left for work at 3 a.m.

The three doctors cited in Reed’s appeal say Fennell’s story is “medically and scientifically” impossible.

Their damning conclusion lends credence to what Reed’s supporters have insisted upon for years: that Fennell himself, then a local police officer, is the man who killed Stites. Reed maintains that he and Stites were in the midst of a risky romantic affair, and that Fennell killed her after he learned of the relationship.

Indeed, last fall The Intercept published a detailed report chronicling Fennell’s troubling history of violence, both on and off the job, and which included the rape of a different Texas woman, while he was on duty and in uniform. Fennell is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for the crime.

In a separate appeal, Reed’s attorneys are asking the same Texas high court that issued the stay of execution to order DNA testing on never-before-tested items connected to Stites’s murder. These include two pieces of a braided leather belt used to strangle Stites. In November, a district judge denied Reed’s request for DNA testing, ruling that no amount of testing would undermine Reed’s conviction.

But because the new scientific evidence “eviscerates” the state’s theory of the crime, Benjet argues, it also invalidates the lower-court judge’s opinion that further DNA testing would be irrelevant.

“DNA testing of the murder weapon and other evidence handled by the killer can exonerate Mr. Reed, possibly identify the real murderer, and ensure that justice is done,” the appeal says.

The state counters that DNA testing is unnecessary and, in a separate brief filed Monday, that the real goal by Reed’s defense is to “unreasonably delay” his execution.

Reed’s case was the subject of a recent two-hour episode of the A&E series “Dead Again.” In it, detectives reinvestigate the case and conclude Reed did not murder Stites. The episode can be viewed here.

Reed now awaits decisions on his latest appeals. There is no timeline for the court to rule.

Photo: Jana Birchum