In a 6-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed to continue pursuing DNA testing that could finally prove his innocence.
“The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today is a critical step toward the ultimate goal of getting DNA testing in Rodney Reed’s case,” Parker Rider-Longmaid, one of Reed’s attorneys, said Wednesday. “We are grateful that the court has kept the courthouse doors open to Mr. Reed.”
Reed, who is Black, was sent to death row for the murder of a 19-year-old white woman named Stacey Stites, whose body was found on the side of a country road outside Bastrop, Texas, in 1996. Sperm recovered from Stites’s body was matched to Reed. Prosecutors called this evidence the “Cinderella’s slipper” that revealed her killer. But Reed insisted he was innocent. He said he’d been having a clandestine affair with Stites, who was engaged to a white cop from a neighboring town. That officer, Jimmy Fennell, denied the possibility of an affair, claiming that he and Stites had a loving relationship and that Stites didn’t know anyone named Rodney Reed. Fennell was never seriously considered as a suspect, yet there was evidence from the start that he might have been responsible for Stites’s death.
Over the intervening decades, this evidence has only gotten stronger. Friends and co-workers of Stites’s maintain that she did know Reed, and law enforcement colleagues of Fennell’s said he had discovered the affair and was furious that Stites was cheating on him with a Black man. Evidence of Fennell’s propensity for violence has also mounted; in 2008, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman while on duty and in uniform. He threatened to kill her if she told anyone.
Prosecutors have repeatedly rebuffed the growing evidence of Reed’s innocence. While failing to offer anything meaningful to challenge the accounts of Reed’s witnesses, they continue to insist that his conviction is righteous — a stance the Texas courts have wholeheartedly endorsed.
Over the years, Reed has repeatedly sought DNA testing of key crime scene evidence that could resolve the matter, including two lengths of a braided leather belt that were used to strangle Stites. Texas has fought back at every turn with a host of dubious claims, including that Reed cannot prove there is DNA present on the belt, that the evidence is too contaminated for testing, and that no amount of DNA evidence would change the outcome of his case. Years of legal wrangling over Reed’s request to test this evidence finally landed his case before the Supreme Court last year.
At issue was a federal civil rights case Reed filed in an attempt to access testing. This time, Texas argued that Reed waited too long to file suit, embracing several different theories to claim that the statute of limitations clock had run out. In its opinion, the Supreme Court found that Reed filed his case on time. The justices who joined today’s majority ruling seemed to grasp that Texas’s claims, as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson put it during oral arguments, were designed solely to “keep a prisoner from ultimately being able to bring a federal claim.”
Out of Reach
The current dispute started in 2014, when Reed filed a motion in state district court seeking testing of the belt and other items under Texas’s post-conviction DNA testing law, known as Chapter 64. Although the law was intended to provide an avenue for defendants to avail themselves of science as a means to challenge their convictions, many have struggled to access testing, largely due to rulings from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, or the CCA, which has repeatedly interpreted the statute in ways that narrow eligibility.
Since Chapter 64’s enactment in 2001, state lawmakers have been forced to amend it several times to address rulings that undercut the intent of the law. At times, the CCA’s rulings have been truly puzzling: In one case, the court ruled that to obtain DNA testing, a defendant first had to prove that DNA existed on the evidence in question, which is nearly impossible to do absent DNA testing.
Prosecutors used this logic to deny DNA testing of the belt used to strangle Stites, arguing that Reed shouldn’t be able to test the belt for DNA because he couldn’t prove there was DNA present. The state also claimed that because evidence had been commingled during storage — mishandling the state itself was responsible for — the items were too contaminated to render any probative DNA results. After the district court sided with the state, Reed appealed to the CCA, which upheld the lower court’s ruling in April 2017. In so doing, the CCA interpreted Chapter 64 to require elements not contained within the text of the law; specifically, the court concluded that alleged contamination of evidence barred Reed from testing, even though the statute says nothing about contamination. Reed asked the court to reconsider its position; six months later, it declined to do so.
While the Supreme Court has ruled that there is no right to post-conviction DNA testing, it has found that if a state does provide access to testing, then the process for obtaining it must be fair, and a defendant may bring a civil rights suit in federal court to challenge an unfair process. That is what Reed did in August 2019, when the CCA declined his request for rehearing.
Under Texas law, such a suit must be brought within two years of the CCA’s denial, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Reed’s suit, ruling that he should have filed several years earlier. In a confounding ruling, the appeals court determined that Reed should have brought the civil rights suit when the district court initially denied testing back in 2014, even though that was years before the CCA weighed in and denied Reed’s appeal. If Reed had taken his claim to federal court in 2014, as the 5th Circuit suggested, he would have been wasting time — and court resources — by filing a suit the federal court couldn’t consider because the state appeals process was ongoing.
While the question before the Supreme Court was a narrow, technical one — when, exactly, should Reed have filed his federal lawsuit? — for Reed and others like him, the answer has life-and-death consequences.
Starting the Clock
During oral arguments in October, Texas argued that Reed could have filed suit on any number of dates, just not the specific date he chose after the state appeals process had concluded. Yet the state offered no cogent explanation for why any of those previous dates made sense. Instead, what appeared to underpin Texas Solicitor General Judd Stone’s position in favor of the alternative dates was that each of them would mean that Reed filed his suit too late, after the statute of limitations had run out.
In a brief eight-page ruling, Justice Brett Kavanaugh made quick work of things. Writing for himself; Chief Justice John Roberts; and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett, and Jackson, Kavanaugh noted that, as a “general matter,” the statute of limitations begins to run only when a person has a “complete and present cause of action.” Because the “longstanding Texas rules of appellate procedure” include the right to ask the CCA for rehearing, which Reed did, the clock began to tick once that request was denied.
“When a prisoner pursues state post-conviction DNA testing through the state-provided litigation process,” the statute of limitations for filing a federal civil rights suit “begins to run when the state litigation ends,” Kavanaugh wrote. “In Reed’s case, the statute of limitations began to run when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Reed’s motion for rehearing.”
In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Neil Gorsuch, wrote that the statute of limitations should have started running when the CCA first denied Reed’s appeal in April 2017. Alito reasoned that the full force of the CCA’s ruling took effect immediately and wasn’t contingent on a request for rehearing, in part because the court often denies such requests. In other words, Reed should have predicted that the April 2017 ruling was the court’s final word on the matter.
Writing separately, Justice Clarence Thomas pontificated at length about all the reasons Reed’s case should be rejected, the matter of the filing date seemingly the least of them. It wasn’t until the close of his opinion that Thomas’s disdain for the rights of criminal defendants and naked bloodlust came into focus.
Thomas noted that there was nothing about the majority’s ruling that would bar the state of Texas from executing Reed. The pending civil rights suit “is no barrier to the prompt execution of Reed’s lawful sentence,” he wrote. He suggested that Texas should move forward: “Reed conceded at oral argument ‘that you do not get a stay of execution just because you brought’” a Chapter 64 or federal civil rights suit, Thomas wrote. “Texas is free to take him at his word.”
Thomas’s argument completely misrepresented the facts. What Reed’s attorney said during oral arguments was that Reed received a stay not because of his DNA case, but because of the myriad troubling questions that have plagued his conviction. The CCA issued the stay of execution in November 2019 to give the courts a chance to determine whether the state had withheld exculpatory evidence from Reed’s defense, whether it had deployed false testimony at his trial, and whether Reed was actually innocent. The stay remains in effect and litigation is ongoing.
The Supreme Court’s ruling sends Reed’s separate federal civil rights suit back to the 5th Circuit for further consideration. With the question of whether Reed filed that suit in a timely manner now answered, “the ruling clears a path” for the court to “consider Mr. Reed’s request that DNA testing be conducted on the murder weapon and other probative items from the crime scene,” Jane Pucher of the Innocence Project, another one of Reed’s attorneys, said.
Rider-Longmaid noted that Bastrop County District Attorney Bryan Goertz has refused to agree to DNA testing and urged him to get on board. “He should join us in the search for the truth, rather than blocking it. If DNA evidence exists, as it does here, it should be tested,” he said. “It’s that simple.”