Central Texas man on death row maintains innocence as many believe his
trial was unfair
Jurors sentenced Rodney Reed to death after DNA evidence showed he'd had
sex with 19-year-old Stacy Stites, found strangled in the brush off a
remote country road.
Rodney Reed But a decade since Mr. Reed, who is black, first proclaimed
his innocence, the case that rocked the small Central Texas town of
Bastrop remains on appeal amplified by an online movement to free Mr.
Reed and continued scrutiny of Texas' use of the death penalty in racially
While Mr. Reed sits on death row, his attorneys are standing by his
theory: that he was having a secret, interracial affair with Ms. Stites
and that Ms. Stites' police officer fianc found out and killed her.
And they're arguing that Mr. Reed's trial was botched from the get-go
from sloppy police work and lack of legal counsel to a dearth of evidence
linking Mr. Reed to the murder. No blacks were chosen for Mr. Reed's jury.
Stacey Stites "From all outward appearances, there is certainly tremendous
doubt about Rodney's guilt," said Jim Marcus, a University of Texas law
professor who has represented death row clients at the state and federal
level but is not involved in Mr. Reed's defense. "At the very least, there
is no question vital information that should've been before the jury was
Mr. Reed's attorneys know they face an uphill battle. Courts maintained
his conviction before, and state prosecutors say nothing has changed.
"They've got the right man," said Debra Oliver, Ms. Stites' sister. "Every
time we go through this, we have to relive her murder. I absolutely
believe Rodney Reed is the man who did this." Mr. Reed declined to be
interviewed for this story.
Not found with pickup
Investigators started searching for Ms. Stites on the morning of April 23,
1996, after she failed to show up for an early shift at the Bastrop H-E-B
grocery. The red pickup her fianc, Jimmy Fennell Jr., said she'd taken to
work was recovered at the high school, but Ms. Stites' body was found in a
remote, wooded area. She was half dressed and appeared to have been
strangled with her own belt.
Mr. Fennell, who was set to marry Ms. Stites in 3 weeks, was initially a
suspect but apparently not a serious one. The pickup was returned to him
promptly after the murder, defense attorneys say, before forensic testing
on it was finished. Mr. Fennell sold the truck a day later. And
investigators never got a search warrant for the apartment Mr. Fennell
then a Giddings police officer and Ms. Stites shared, even though it was
the last place she'd been seen alive.
A year after the murder, investigators matched the semen found in Ms.
Stites' body to Mr. Reed, then 29, whose DNA was already on file over a
previous sexual assault charge. Prosecutors charged him with Ms. Stites'
murder, alleging he'd stopped Ms. Stites on her way to work, raped,
strangled and sodomized her, then dumped her body before leaving the truck
at the high school.
Mr. Reed had been accused of rape several times in the past though the
one time he was charged and tried, he was acquitted. The other accusers
were women he knew or had dated in the past.
Defense attorneys called the state's case an unlikely stretch. None of Mr.
Reed's hair or footprints were found on or near Ms. Stites' body. There
was no indication of how Mr. Reed, allegedly on foot and without a weapon,
had stopped Ms. Stites in her car. A search of the red pickup found only
Mr. Fennell's and Ms. Stites' fingerprints, though Mr. Reed was the one
who had allegedly abandoned the car at the high school.
"The state's theory that whoever had sex with [Ms. Stites] killed her was
flawed from the very beginning," said Reed attorney Morris Overstreet, who
went before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this month to request a
Prosecutors believed the semen would be enough for a Bastrop County jury.
It was along with the fact that Mr. Reed's own story changed.
At the time he was questioned about Ms. Stites, Mr. Reed was in jail for
an unrelated cocaine charge, and he denied knowing her. When the DNA
evidence against him was revealed, he told investigators that he'd been
having an affair with Ms. Stites and that he'd had sex with her the day
before the murder. He said they kept it a secret because of Mr. Fennell's
position with the police department and because they feared racial
discrimination over the relationship in their small town.
At Mr. Reed's trial, a state expert testified that the semen collected by
investigators had to have been planted in Ms. Stites' body that morning
not the night before. Since the trial, forensics specialists retained by
the defense have argued that's not necessarily the case.
The purported relationship was never fully fleshed out in his trial. Mr.
Reed's camp says it's because his original attorneys didn't do their job;
they say they've now got affidavits from 9 witnesses who can vouch for the
"They railroaded my son," said Mr. Reed's mother, Sandra. "I knew Stacy.
She came to our house. I know my son is innocent."
But prosecutors say the affair theory is outlandish. They say the
witnesses, many of whom are family members or have criminal records,
aren't trustworthy and have changed their stories.
"There is no credible evidence the relationship ever existed, no reliable
witness testimony," said Assistant Attorney General Tina Miranda. "To
claim something has been excluded is absolutely ridiculous."
Mr. Reed's attorneys also note that the trial never touched on beer cans
found near Ms. Stites' body. Repeated DNA tests on saliva found on the
cans ruled out Mr. Reed. But they couldn't rule out another local police
officer a close friend and neighbor of Mr. Fennell's.
Mr. Reed's attorneys say the beer cans never came up in court because
prosecutors didn't turn the DNA report over to them before trial. State
attorneys vehemently deny they withheld the report; Jerry Strickland, a
spokesman for Attorney General Greg Abbott, said that in 2001, a court
concluded that the state provided the lab reports to the defense attorney.
The attorney general's office helped Bastrop County prosecutors with the
Ryan Polomski, a filmmaker whose graduate thesis on the Reed case evolved
into an award-winning documentary, said there are enough questions about
the trial to give pause.
"Am I 100 % sure Reed didn't do it? No," he said "But I am 100 % sure he
didn't get a fair trial."
Now, two additional witnesses have also joined the defense roster. One
woman has testified she saw Ms. Stites and Mr. Fennell arguing outside a
convenience store hours after Mr. Reed was alleged to have killed her.
Another, a Dallas-area police officer, was in a police academy class with
Mr. Fennell and said she heard him say he would strangle his girlfriend
with a belt if he ever found she had cheated on him.
State attorneys call these claims far-fetched; they say that the
convenience store witness didn't come forward until after Mr. Fennell
arrested her for drunken driving and that no other police officers in Mr.
Fennell's academy class recall hearing the belt comment.
"My client has been long ago vindicated by a jury and various appellate
courts of any involvement in the Stacy Stites killing," said Bob Phillips,
Mr. Fennell's criminal defense attorney. The insinuation that Mr. Fennell
was involved "would be laughable if it weren't so outrageously unfair."
But recent charges against Mr. Fennell are adding fuel to the fire for
those who believe he could've played a role in Ms. Stites' killing. Last
year, he was indicted for allegedly kidnapping and raping a woman in his
custody while on a domestic disturbance call for the Georgetown Police
Department. Mr. Fennell has resigned from the department while he awaits
"I'm not going to try our case in the press," said Mr. Phillips. "My
client feels innocent because he is innocent."
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Execution Date Set for Mexican
A Mexican-born prisoner whose death sentence set off an international
dispute and a Supreme Court rebuke of the White House received an
execution date of Aug. 5. The prisoner, Jos E. Medelln, was sentenced to
death by lethal injection for his participation in the gang rape and
strangulation deaths of 2 teenage girls 15 years ago in Houston when they
stumbled upon a gang initiation rite.
The Supreme Court in March refused to hear Mr. Medelln's appeal, saying
President Bush overstepped his authority by ordering Texas to reopen his
case and the cases of 50 other Mexican citizens condemned for murders in
the United States. Texas refused to comply. During Mr. Bush's 6-year
tenure as Texas governor, 152 inmates went to the state's death chamber,
the nation's busiest. But he took the side of Mr. Medelln and 50 other
Mexican citizens on death rows around the country after the International
Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that their convictions violated the 1963
Vienna Convention, which provides that people arrested abroad should have
access to their home country's consular officials. The international court
said the Mexican prisoners should have new court hearings to determine
whether the violations affected their cases. The Supreme Court said Texas
could ignore the world court.
(source: Associated Press)