Rodney Reed is a Texas death row inmate whose looming execution is causing outcry from those who argue that he is innocent in the death of a young Texas woman named Stacey Stites. His execution is scheduled for November 20, 2019, and a chorus of celebrities, including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian, have asked Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to stop it, as has the bipartisan Texas House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus.
The Texas Parole Board has now voted to recommend that Abbott delay Reed’s execution for 120 days. Then, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals blocked Reed’s execution, according to CNN, arguing that a lower court should consider Reed’s innocence claims, which include seven affidavits from witnesses who say that Stites and her fiancee, a police officer at the time, had an “abusive and difficult” relationship. They also provide evidence that Stites and Reed were having an affair at the time of her death.
Here’s how the case breaks down: Prosecutors convicted Reed largely on the basis that they say his DNA from sperm was found in the victim’s body. However, Reed and his supporters say that he was having a secret romance with the victim, giving her police officer boyfriend motive to kill her. Because Reed is black and the victim and her boyfriend were white, some argue that the interracial relationship story was less believed than it would have been otherwise. Both the boyfriend and Reed have troubling histories of other accusations against them.
There is a Change.org petition that seeks to stop Reed’s execution. It’s been signed by more than 425,000 people. “The State of Texas wants to execute an innocent man on November 20, 2019. Rodney Reed was wrongfully convicted in 1998 of the rape and murder of Stacey Stites. He has sat on Texas’ Death Row for 2 decades,” the petition says, outlining evidence in the case.
Reed was convicted of murdering and sexually assaulting Stacey Stites. Dr. Robert Bayardo, the Travis County Medical Examiner, determined that Stites died around 3:00 a.m. on April 23, 1996, but later clarified that time and it’s contested. Be forewarned that some of the details in court documents are extremely graphic and disturbing.
“The State’s theory at trial was that Reed’s DNA profile found in the semen deposited in Stites’s vagina and rectum and in the saliva on her breast clearly indicated that Reed had sex with Stites,” an appellate court decision in the case says. “And based on the injuries she suffered both pre- and post-mortem, the State argued that the sexual encounter was not consensual.”
According to the Texas Tribune, Reed maintains he had consensual sex with Stites, the result of “a casual relationship,” but her mother and sisters strongly disagree with that. Others have said they saw the two together before. Some experts also say that they can’t prove the sperm were in Stites’ body as a result of sexual assault.
“Mountains of evidence exonerates Rodney Reed,” the Free Rodney Reed website says. “All of that evidence was kept from the all white jury that convicted him. Instead, the evidence implicates the victim’s fiancé – local police officer Jimmy Fennell – who has a history of violence against women, including being convicted for kidnapping and sexual assault soon after Rodney was wrongly sent to prison.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Stacey Lee Sites Was Found Dead on the Side of a Back Country Rode & Was Engaged to a Police Officer at the time of Her Murder
Stacey Lee Stites’s partially clothed body “was found on the side of a back country road in Bastrop County on April 23, 1996. She was wearing only a black bra, underwear, undone blue jeans, socks, and a single tennis shoe, and her H.E.B. name tag was found in the crook of her knee,” an appellate court decision in her case reads.
Found nearby: “A white t-shirt, a piece of a brown woven belt without a buckle, and two beer cans.” The court documents say that, before Stites’s murder, “she was engaged to Jimmy Fennell, a Giddings police officer at the time, and the two shared Fennell’s red pick-up truck.”
She was working the early morning shift at H.E.B, and she usually drove the truck to work. It was found at the Bastrop High School parking lot after she vanished. “Among other things inside the truck, authorities found Stites’s other shoe and broken pieces of a green plastic cup. Outside the truck, police found a piece of a brown woven belt with the buckle attached,” the documents say.
According to the Texas Tribune, Reed’s lawyers have placed suspicion on Fennell, in part because of his criminal history. Both Reed and Fennel have criminal histories, though. Reed had been indicted in other rape cases before his trial for Stites’s death but was not convicted; Fennell was convicted of kidnapping and raping a woman while on duty as a police officer in 2007, a crime for which he spent a decade behind bars, Texas Tribune reports.
Fennell was initially looked at by law enforcement. He was found to be “deceptive on two polygraph tests when questioned in Stites’ death,” according to the Tribune. He said that she left for work in his truck, and authorities couldn’t figure out a timeline that would allow him to get back to the apartment where they lived, without his truck, in time to kill her, according to the newspaper, adding that his lawyer has stated that the timeline doesn’t make sense for Fennell to be the killer.
The Free Rodney Reed website explains, “Stacey Stites died in April 1996. Nearly one year later, Bastrop Sheriffs arrested a 29-year-old black man named Rodney Reed. He was charged with capital murder, citing DNA evidence matching Reed’s DNA to a small amount of sperm found inside the body. Prosecutors successfully argued that this was enough evidence to prove that Reed was responsible for her brutal sexual assault and murder.”
2. Fennell Was Later Sent to Prison on a Different Crime & Is Accused of Confessing to a Former Member of the Aryan Brotherhood
Fennell was later sentenced to a 10-year prison term for “the kidnapping and sexual assault of a woman in his custody as a Georgetown police officer in 2007, according to The Statesman.
An inmate who served time with him later stated in a sworn affidavit that Fennell confessed that he killed Stites. The inmate, Arthur Snow Jr. stated that Fennell “was talking about his fiance with a lot of hatred and anger. Jimmy said his fiance had been sleeping around with a black man behind his back,” The Statesman reported.
According to the Austin Chronicle, Jimmy Fennell, Jr. was a Georgetown police sergeant when he was accused of kidnapping a woman he met while answering a call on duty. He was accused of taking her to a park, slamming her against his patrol car, putting a gun to her head, and raping her, the newspaper reports.
He then allegedly told her he would hunt her down and kill her if she told anyone, the reports say, attributing the quote to documentarian Ryan Polomski’s interview with the woman.
The newspaper also says that, in the Stites’ case, police didn’t search the apartment Stites shared with Fennell and gave him back his truck without thoroughly processing it. The Chronicle also says that a different woman, who married Fennell, told a man named Keith Tubbs that Fennell had allegedly “abused her, that she was afraid of him,” and that she was worried he was involved in killing Stacey Stites.
“For months after the murder, Jimmy Fennell was the prime suspect in the case. A recording of one of the police investigators indicates that Fennell was suspected in the murder of Stites, motivated by her relationship with another man,” the Innocence Project reported, adding that Snow was a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood who claims Fennell told him “I had to kill my n*****-loving fiancée.”
Through his lawyer, Fennell has repeatedly denied having anything to do with Stites’ death, according to The Statesman.
However, the Innocence Project reports, “Fennell’s best friend at the time of the crime, Bastrop Sheriff’s Officer Curtis Davis, has now revealed that Fennell gave an inconsistent account of where he was on the night of the murder. Fennell had told his friend he was out drinking on the night Stites was murdered. Contradicting this claim, he later stated he was with Stites in their apartment during what we now know was the actual time of her death, based on Dr. Michael Baden’s updated testimony. When asked to explain this discrepancy, Fennell declined to testify because his answers might further incriminate him.”
In addition, says the Innocence Project, “Two witnesses have come forward in recent weeks and submitted signed affidavits that add to the mounting evidence against Jimmy Fennell. These affidavits include testimony from an insurance salesperson who stated that Fennell threatened to kill Stites while applying for life insurance. The second witness was a Deputy in the Lee County Sheriff’s Office at the time of the murder, who Fennell made an alarming and incriminating statement to at Stites’s funeral regarding her body.”
Rodney’s family have joined others who are pushing Texas to not execute Reed.
The Rodney Reed Is Innocent Facebook page shared, “Everyone should have a mom like #SandraReed. She is kind, funny, gentle and sweet. She is also strong, brave, tenacious and unbreakable. When her son was wrongfully convicted, so was she. And, when her son was sent to #deathrow, she went there with him. Unwavering and tireless, her strength endures.”
There is another Facebook page called Justice for Stacey Stites. “Wow, just WOW. Share TF out of this! I plan on spending the next 7 days making sure Rodney Reed goes straight to hell on November 20th. If only the jury that acquitted him in his first rape trial would have listened to his accuser! Why Dr. Phil? Why Kim K? Why Oprah? What is your agenda?” the top post, by Christina Rose, reads. “‘If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.'”
It continues, “Give Stacey and her family justice. Give that 12 year old her justice. Give that mentally challenged girl her justice. Give that first victim the justice a jury didn’t give her. Give the children that saw their mother get beaten and raped the justice they deserve…Get it done Texas.”
Jason Parks wrote, “I’ve spent the better part of the past 5 days reading all the trial and appellate transcripts and filings. I live nearby and I’m very familiar with the area. Had I been a juror, I would have found him guilty of capital murder. You can argue death penalty / life in prison all you want. But he is guilty of this crime. No question. If you haven’t read all of the transcripts, filings, and evidence don’t come to me with your arguments. You just have an agenda your pushing.”
3. Investigators at the Scene Believed That the Murder Weapon Was a Belt
Department of Public Safety (DPS) crime scene investigators Karen Blakley, Wilson Young, and Terry Sandifer handled the investigation early on.
Blakley testified at trial that the murder weapon was the belt “[b]ecause it matched the pattern that was on [Stites’s] neck,” the appellate court decision reads. “Blakley also concluded that the two belt pieces matched and were torn, not cut.”
However, according to The Texas Tribune, a police officer “said she heard Fennell say that he would strangle Stites with a belt if he ever found out she cheated on him.”
Furthermore, Texas Tribune reports, a former sheriff’s deputy “said he heard Fennell tell Stites’ body at her funeral that she deserved what she got” and another deputy “said Fennell told him before the murder that he believed Stites was having sex with a black man.” Reed’s lawyesr say a former prison inmate says Fennell confessed that he killed Stites.
Blakley also presumed that there was a sexual assault because Stites was partially clothed and her pants were ripped open. “At the scene, Blakley further observed Stites’s underwear was wet in the crotch and bunched around her hips, so she tested the crotch of the underwear for semen,” the documents say.
“Getting a positive result, Blakley collected DNA samples from Stites’s vagina and breasts. Blakley did not collect samples from Stites’s rectum because rigor mortis had already set in. Blakley also observed scratches on Stites’s arms and abdomen, a cigarette burn on her arm, and what appeared to be fire ant bites on her wrists. To preserve any DNA evidence under her fingernails, DPS investigators put plastic bags over Stites’s hands,” the document state.
In addition, investigators determined that a person 6 foot 2 inches or taller had driven the truck due to the way that the driver’s seat was pushed back.
The medical examiner also believed the belt was the murder weapon and that it was used to strangle Stites. “Like Blakley, Bayardo presumed Stites was sexually assaulted, took vaginal swabs, and found sperm with both heads and tails intact,” the court records say. “He also took rectal swabs but found only sperm heads with no tails. He noted that her anus was dilated with superficial lacerations. Dr. Bayardo thought the presence of sperm in the anus was indicative of penile penetration, but noted that it may have been attributed to seepage from the vagina. He concluded that Stites’s anal injuries occurred at or around the time of death and therefore were not acts of consensual sexual activity.”
In addition, five days after Stites’s body was found, a citizen “reported finding some items they believed were connected to Stites’s murder,” the documents say. The report, written by Officer Scoggins, “stated that the citizen reported that a part of a shirt, two condoms, and part of a knife handle were found. At trial, Ranger Wardlow testified that he did not have personal knowledge about who brought in the condoms. However, he testified that he saw the condoms a short while after they were brought in and confirmed that the condoms ‘appeared to be old and cracked and worn out.’ These items were not tested for DNA evidence before trial.”
According to the Innocence Project, “The three forensic experts from Reed’s original trial have submitted affidavits that the original time of death is inaccurate, which makes the timeline for Reed killing Stites implausible.”
In addition, the Project states, “Renown forensic pathologists including Michael Baden, M.D., Werner Spitz, M.D., LeRoy Riddick, M.D., and Cyril Wecht, M.D. have all concluded that Reed’s guilt is medically and scientifically impossible. The prosecution’s only forensic evidence linking Reed to the crime was semen taken from Stites’s body, which was attributed to the consensual relationship between them. The prosecution used this to connect him to the murder and refute this consensual romantic relationship, but supporting testimony has since been recanted and completely discredits the state’s case.”
The Project adds, “The murder weapon has never been tested for DNA evidence. Requests for DNA testing of crime scene evidence, including a belt that was used as the murder weapon has been repeatedly denied by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In 2018, the United States Supreme Court declined to directly review the Texas courts’ denial of DNA testing.”
4. Authorities Say Sperm Found in Stites’ Body Matched Rodney Reed But New Witnesses Say They Knew the Two Were in a Relationship
Over the course of an 11 month investigation, police obtained 28 DNA samples from different men, but none of them matched the crime scene evidence. They initially worked on ruling out people Stites knew personally.
They started focusing next on Reed because he was about the same height as the estimate for the suspect, lived near the high school and “frequently walked the area late at night,” the appellate decision states. “Police learned from DPS that Reed had an existing DNA sample on file and had DPS test it against the vaginal swabs taken by Blakley. Two different DNA tests of the samples concluded that Reed could not be excluded as a donor of the semen,” the documents allege.
Those results were sent to a lab for more testing, and again it was determined that “the results could not exclude Reed and…that the samples matched Reed’s genetic profile.”
The courts previously denied an appeal in Reed’s case on the basis of this evidence. “Our judgment relied on Reed’s DNA found in and on Stites’s body, expert testimony regarding how long sperm heads can survive in the vagina and anus, and expert testimony that the sexual assault occurred at or near the time of death,” the court wrote.
“Rodney has steadfastly maintained his innocence from Day 1,” insists the Free Rodney Reed website. “Absolutely zero evidence exists that Rodney had anything at all to do with this crime. He was in a consensual relationship with Stacey Stites and the only DNA of Rodney’s that was found was from this consensual relationship. The prosecution, citing that DNA persuaded an all-white jury of his guilt; he was convicted and sentenced to die by lethal injection. Currently, he is scheduled to die in just a few days on November 20, 2019.”
At the time of the trial, the Innocence Project reports, “no one came forward to corroborate their relationship. Today, new witnesses including Stites’s own cousin and co-worker have corroborated Reed’s claim that they knew that Reed and Stites were romantically involved.”
5. A Texas Appeals Court Denied Reed’s Request for DNA Testing on Various Items
In 2017, a Texas appeals court denied Reed’s request for post-conviction DNA testing of more than 40 items. “The trial judge denied the motion. Because Reed cannot establish that exculpatory DNA results would have resulted in his acquittal and his motion is not made for the purpose of unreasonable delay, we affirm the trial judge’s denial,” the appeals court decision reads.
That decision states that the state asked for an execution date in 2014, and one was set, originally for January 14, 2015. Reed then filed a motion asking for DNA testing on “a large number of items. In reviewing Reed’s pleadings, we note that Reed has not clearly or consistently identified items he seeks to test,” the documents say.
The appeals court wrote that the items could be grouped as follows: “(1) items recovered from Stites’s body or her clothing, (2) items found in or near Fennell’s truck, and (3) items found near the victim-recovery scene.”
As for category 1, the items were:
· H.E.B. name tag
· White t-shirt
· Section of belt (no buckle)
· Section of belt (with buckle)
· Right shoe
· Left shoe
· H.E.B. employee shirt
· Strands of hair from left sock, back of left leg, and back
· White flakes
· Tape lifts from pubic area
· Vaginal and rectal swabs
“The State and Reed agreed to have the last three items listed tested outside of Chapter 64’s parameters, and the judge entered an agreed order to that effect July 14, 2014. The record shows Reed abandoned his Chapter 64 testing request in regard to these items,” the appeals court says.
As for category 2, in and around Fennell’s truck:
· Knife and metal cover
· Metal box cutter
· Pack of Big Red gum
· Piece of green plastic cup
· Brown planner/organizer
· Single hair from planner/organizer
· White paper napkin
· Carbon copies of checks
· Gas emergency book
· Latent fingerprint from passenger door
· Automatic teller receipt
· Bridal shop receipt
· Walmart receipt
· Business card
· Plastic bag
· Blue nylon rope
· Brown rope
As for category 3, the victim-recovery scene:
· Plastic bags placed over Stites’s hands during investigation
· Used condoms
· Two Busch beer cans
· Swabs/samples taken from mouths of two Busch beer cans
· Extract samples from blue condom stored in coin envelope
· Piece of shirt
· Piece of knife
The court documents say Reed also wants these items tested:
· Knee brace
· Back brace
· Green blanket
· White paper used under Stites’s body during autopsy
Largely, Reed is hoping to use the new science of “touch DNA” on the items. In some cases, the courts have found, the chain of custody was not intact with various items above. Some of the items “were handled by ungloved attorneys, court personnel, and possibly the jurors,” court documents say.
“The cumulative weight of the State’s and Reed’s witnesses demonstrates that the manner in which the evidence was handled and stored casts doubt on the evidence’s integrity, especially for the specific testing Reed seeks,” the appeals court concluded for some items on the list. The court found that Reed only satisfied a test in the statutes for testing some items: That there was a likelihood that bear biological material.
As to the question of whether the items might exculpate Reed, the trial judge found that “none of the evidence was so integral to the State’s case that the jury would have acquitted despite knowing that [Reed’s] DNA was not on the item.”
The appeals court agreed, writing, “Both in the trial court and on appeal, Reed fails to articulate why the presumed exculpatory results of the items he wanted tested would result in the jury finding him not guilty, as opposed to merely ‘muddying the waters’ as the trial judge concluded.”
The court found that “Reed cannot establish that the condoms, beer cans, and the white paper napkin are connected to Stites’s capital murder…the condoms appeared to be old, cracked, and worn out, suggesting they had long predated Stites’s death….Reed provides little more than supposition to suggest that, because it was found on the ground outside of Fennell’s truck, the napkin was connected to the murder.”
The court found: “According to the trial testimony, the two beer cans were collected by the latent-fingerprint examiner who found them located across the road from where Stites was discovered. Another member of the crime-scene examination team testified that finding beer cans on the side of a country road is not uncommon. Other than an effort to be thorough in collecting items relatively near the crime scene, there was nothing in particular that led law enforcement to believe that the beer cans were connected to the crime scene.”
The court continued, “Reed fails to demonstrate that the alternative murderer would have necessarily left the fingerprint found on Fennell’s truck and handled the H.E.B. pen, cigarette lighter, package of gum, and metal box cutter. Other than their proximity to the murder’s commission, the record fails to establish why these items are relevant to establishing Stites’s murderer.”