The Death Penalty Information Center reports that since 1973, 166 people who had been wrongly convicted in American courtrooms and sentenced to death have been exonerated.
The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty informs that of the 565 people executed in this state since 1982, there is compelling evidence that at least five of them were innocent—Cameron Todd Willingham, Gary Graham, Carlo Luna, Ruben Cantu and Larry Swearingen.
Texas may very well be on the fast track to add Rodney Reed to the list of innocent people tragically put to death in the state’s death chamber at Huntsville.
Reed’s execution is scheduled for November 20, 2019.
Reed’s fight to avoid execution has garnered national and international attention from virtually every major media outlet in the U.S. 2.3 million people have signed online petitions calling for a halt to the impending execution. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, LL Cool J, Beyoncé, Meek Mill, and others have called on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to stop the execution. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin and a bipartisan coalition of Democratic and Republican state lawmakers have joined the lobbying campaign to get Abbott to intervene and stay the execution until newly discovered evidence can be fully developed.
Police Officer Suspected in Violent Rape and Murder Investigation
Rodney Reed was convicted and sentenced to death in Bastrop County for the 1996 rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites. Information in the public record reveals that the victim’s body was found in an isolated wooded area of the county while her vehicle was found abandoned miles away in a school parking lot. Evidence of the violent attack was collected at both scenes, including semen inside and on the victim’s body.
At the time of her death, Stites was living with and engaged to a Giddings (located in Bastrop County) police officer named Jimmy Fennell who was the initial suspect in the crime. He failed two polygraph examinations during the course of the investigation against him.
Flawed Investigation Shifts Suspect
The police investigation of Fennell was seriously flawed from its outset because the police officer’s Giddings apartment—the one he shared with Stites—and his vehicle (a truck he sold shortly after Stites’ murder) were never searched by investigators for possible forensic evidence. That proved to be an error that would cast serious doubt on the validity of the Stites investigation. To add further suspicion, a decade later, in 2008, Fennell was convicted, after a guilty plea, for raping a woman he had taken into custody in 2007. He was given a ten-year sentence in the Texas prison system for that offense.
The Stites murder remained unsolved for nearly a year. Reed became a suspect in the case after he was arrested for the kidnapping, beating and attempting to sexual assault of another 19-year-old woman along the same route Stites took on her way to work. The similarities of the crimes, and the fact that Reed had been previously seen in that area by local police on patrol, prompted investigators to compare Reed’s DNA with the semen recovered from Stites’ vagina. The Texas Department of Public Safety had Reed’s DNA in its database because it had been collected after he was arrested for yet another sexual offense against his intellectually disabled girlfriend.
DNA Found in Victim Matches Reed
The DNA analysis confirmed with virtual absolute certainty that the semen in Stites’ vagina had been produced by Reed. Investigators also conducted DNA analysis on several of Reed’s male family members to exclude them from the semen deposit.
When initially questioned by the police about the Stites murder before the DNA analysis, Reed denied having known or ever seeing the victim. Once the DNA match was made between Reed and Stites, he conceded that he did in fact know Stites and that they had been involved in a discreet consensual sexual relationship.
And this is where the thorny issue of race inevitably enters the antagonistic debate in the Reed case.
Racism Infiltrates Investigation
Prosecutors charge to this date that there has never been any meaningful evidence produced to show that Stites was involved in a romantic relationship with Reed. Innocence Project attorneys currently representing Reed beg to differ. They point to an October 2019 letter written to Gov. Abbott by a former Bastrop County police officer named Charles Wayne Fletcher stating that Fennell confided in him sometime before Stites’ murder that Fennell believed his fiancée was “sleeping with a black man.” They also point to a Stites’ co-workers who, in recent years, have either stated that Stites told them that she had been dating a “black man named Rodney” or that they had seen her with Reed.
Reed’s Innocence Project defense team theorizes that this was the motive for Fennell murdering Stites. They point to an affidavit from an inmate who served prison time with Fennell in 2010. The inmate stated in an affidavit that Fennell told him that, “I had to kill my n…..-loving fiancée.” This statement is bolstered by a former sheriff’s deputy who has come forward to say he heard Fennell tell Stites’ body at her funeral that she got what she deserved. Yet another former Giddings police officer, Mary Blackwell, has also come forward to state she overheard Fennell state he would strangle Stites with a belt if he ever found out she was cheating on him.
Reasons to Stay Execution
To protect public trust in Texas’s criminal justice system, these and other additional legitimate reasons warrant an executive stay of execution in the Reed case. They include:
- The suspected murder weapon, Stites’ belt, has never been tested for DNA evidence;
- Prosecution experts have stated since Reed’s conviction that they gave incorrect testimony at trial, especially about Stites’ time of death, saying now that there was no way to determine Stites’ actual time of death;
- New forensic testing shows that Stites’ time of death occurred before Fennell said she left their apartment to go to work at around midnight;
- The state’s medical examiner and other new experts now say there was no evidence that the semen found in Stites’ vagina was the result of a forced sexual assault; and
- The fact that Reed was convicted by an all-white jury for the rape/murder of a white woman in a county that has a systemic history of racism.
Bastrop County prosecutors and the Texas Attorney General’s Office counter these reasons by pointing to the DNA/semen evidence and Reed’s implication in six other sexual assaults, one involving a 12-year-old child, as concrete evidence of guilt. Even though Reed was acquitted on one of those assaults and although no criminal charges were ever brought in connection with the others, prosecutors nonetheless call Reed a “serial rapist” who is guilty of the rape and murder of Stacey Stites.
We don’t know if Rodney Reed is guilty or innocent.
Flawed Process, Police and Prosecutorial Misconduct, Ineffective Assistance
What we do know is that due process demands additional inquiry to factually determine whether the original guilty verdict remains credible. There is sufficient evidence to question the credibility of that verdict because of prosecutorial misconduct. For example, prosecutors withheld information about a woman named Martha Bennett who said she saw Stites and Fennell together at around 5:30 a.m. on the morning Stites was murdered.
The credibility of the verdict can also be questioned because Reed’s trial attorneys failed to call witnesses who would have supported the defense’s claim of a consensual sexual relationship between Reed and Stites after the attorneys promised to do so in their opening statement.
A combination of all these reasons and factors prompts us to concur with an October 23, 2019 column in the Austin Statesman by Bill McCann
“Reed was convicted of killing 19-year-old Stacey Stites and dumping her body near a rural Bastrop County road in 1996. If I had been on that jury, I would have had questions. For example, how was Reed able to commit the murder? Prosecutors theorized that Reed, a stranger on foot, somehow got Stites to stop the truck she was driving from her Giddings apartment to the Bastrop H-E-B for her 3:30 a.m. work shift. In the middle of the night he was able to stop, sexually assault and murder her, dump her body, drive the truck to where it was found near Bastrop High School, and go home unseen.
“Reed was convicted based on his DNA being found inside Stites. No other evidence, including fingerprints, linked him to the murder. So, Reed was careful to avoid leaving fingerprints but not his DNA? He acknowledged having an ongoing affair with Stites, which accounted for the DNA.
“It seems to me Reed never had a chance. He is a black man accused of murdering a pretty, young white woman in a trial by an all-white jury in a rural Texas county. The trial was fast-tracked, leaving Reed’s court-appointed defense inadequate time to prepare. Prosecutors were less than forthcoming. The criminal investigation was less than stellar. For one thing, investigators reportedly didn’t search the apartment where Stites was last seen alive.
“Stites shared the apartment with her fiancé Jimmy Fennell, then a Giddings police officer. I often have heard police investigators say that if a woman gets murdered, the first suspect is a husband or boyfriend. Initially, Fennell was a suspect. In fact, he reportedly failed two polygraph tests and gave differing accounts of his whereabouts the night of the murder.
“Subsequently, the nonprofit Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate people believed to be wrongfully convicted, took Reed’s case. New witnesses came forward to confirm that Reed and Stites were romantically involved. The state’s expert witnesses, who provided technical testimony crucial to the prosecution about her time of death, recanted testimony.
“Independent national experts who reviewed the case concluded that Stites was murdered hours before prosecutors she was – putting her in her apartment with Fennell. Meanwhile, defense attorneys say the state has refused requests to conduct DNA tests on evidence that Reed thinks could clear him, including a belt believed used to strangle Stites.”
Fairness and justice demand Gov. Abbott’s intervention.