In a dramatic turn of events, Texas’s Court of Criminal Appeals issued an indefinite stay of execution for Rodney Reed, pending further court action on three points of appeal — including whether Reed is actually innocent of the murder that sent him to death row more than 20 years ago.
On November 15, the state’s highest criminal court concluded that questions about whether prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence and sponsored false testimony at Reed’s trial, along with the question of Reed’s innocence, should be kicked back to the trial court for further vetting.
Reed, now 51, has been on Texas’s death row since 1998, when he was sentenced to die for the murder of a 19-year-old woman named Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas, a small town about 30 miles east of Austin.
DNA collected from Stites’s body at the crime scene was matched to Reed. On the basis of that match alone, prosecutors drummed up a theory of the crime that alleged that Reed had hijacked Stites’s pickup truck while he was on foot in the pre-dawn hours of April 23, 1996, as Stites drove alone on a state highway on her way to work. No other evidence tied Reed to the crime.
When he was questioned about the murder, Reed at first said he didn’t know Stites but soon relented, saying his DNA was there because the two were having a consensual affair — a situation that would have been perilous: Reed is black, Stites was white, and she was engaged to a man named Jimmy Fennell, a white police officer in a neighboring town.
Evidence that has steadily emerged since Reed’s conviction casts a much darker picture of the relationship between Stites and Fennell.
Prosecutors alleged that the DNA was the result of a stranger encounter with Reed — an argument they bolstered using testimony from Fennell about his apparently loving, monogamous relationship with Stites.
But evidence that has steadily emerged since Reed’s conviction casts a far different, much darker picture of the relationship between Stites and Fennell, adding credence to Reed’s assertion of a consensual affair.
In the brief that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals considered before issuing the stay of execution, Reed’s attorney, Bryce Benjet of the Innocence Project, offered new information that reinforces the argument that Reed is innocent and undermines Fennell’s account of his relationship with Stites.
Among the newest affidavits contained in the filing is one from a former Bastrop sheriff’s deputy named Richard Derleth, who said that he regularly talked to employees of the grocery store where Stites worked. He said they told him that they would warn Stites whenever Fennell came to the store to see her, in an effort to prevent a confrontation between the couple. “They would tell Stacey and she would run and hide from Jimmy,” Derleth said. “They told me they were concerned that if they did not alert Stacey to Jimmy’s presence in the store before he found her, he would start a fight with her.”
Fennell’s attorney Robert Phillips recently told me that such accusations against Fennell are not credible because they were not made contemporaneous to Stites’s murder. “These Hail Mary, 11th hour people who are coming out of the woodwork, 20 years after the fact, including law enforcement officers … I ask this question: Where were you all this time?”
“I am not sure what the members of the sheriff’s office I told this to ever did with it.”
But according to Derleth, he was working at the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office back in 1996 and informed his colleagues of what he knew at the time. “I am not sure what the members of the sheriff’s office I told this to ever did with it,” he said.
Another man, William Sappington, also had a story for police back in 1996 that was apparently never followed up on. Sappington, who has since died, lived in an apartment downstairs from the one Stites shared with Fennell at the time of her murder.
According to Sappington’s son Brent and daughter-in-law Vicki, Sappington talked about the verbal and potentially physical abuse that he heard in the apartment upstairs, perpetrated, Brent and Vicki said in affidavits, by Fennell. According to the couple, they had also heard the altercations upstairs, and they knew that after Stites’s death, Sappington reported the information to police. They said Sappington told them that the police said they weren’t interested.
“When Stacey was killed, Daddy was devastated, and he told us that he contacted law enforcement to tell them what he knew about Jimmy’s abuse but was told that Jimmy would not do that type of thing and was not involved in Stacey’s death,” Vicki Sappington told Reed’s attorneys. “He told me he could not understand why investigators were not more interested in speaking to him since Jimmy and Stacey were directly above his apartment.”
In granting the stay of execution, the court is questioning whether the state violated Reed’s rights by withholding information from his defense lawyers. While the state had an obligation to turn over case-related information from all local law enforcement officers, the accounts of Derleth and others suggest that did not happen.
The second question raised by the court is whether Fennell lied at Reed’s trial when he testified that he and Stites had a loving, conflict-free relationship. Numerous witnesses, now including the Sappingtons, have called that claim into question.
Looming over it all is the question of whether Reed is actually innocent of the murder for which he was condemned to die, which the court is also apparently interested in, despite its long and complicated history with that question. Over the years, the court has largely done what it can to erect barriers in front of those with solid evidence of innocence, including in Reed’s case. In exonerating a man in Dallas last year who was convicted based on notoriously unreliable bite-mark evidence, Chief Judge Sharon “Killer” Keller wondered where the bar for demonstrating innocence should rest. “Should a convicted person be declared ‘actually innocent’ merely because the state’s case has completely fallen apart?” she wrote. “Or should the evidence also affirmatively show that the defendant did not in fact commit the crime? I believe the latter is the case.”