Rodney Reed was found guilty by a jury in the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites in Texas, and has been on death row awaiting execution ever since then. But Reed maintains his innocence, and a drove of celebrities along with attorneys from The Innocence Project have taken on the “Free Rodney Reed” mantle.
Reed was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on November 20, 2019, but a stay was issued shortly before he was slated to die. His case has garnered national media attention following a public outcry of innocence from celebrities including Kim Kardashian West, who said she was with him when he learned the execution stay was issued. Reed is awaiting a new hearing, which is scheduled for 2021.
ABC 20/20 is examining the case in a new episode, “Death Row Interview,” which airs at 9 p.m. Eastern time Friday, December 11, 2020.
Here’s what you need to know:
Reed’s Appeal Attorneys Have Made the Same Defense Claims as His 1998 Trial Attorneys
Reed’s defense in the 1996 murder of 19-year-old Stites has remained largely the same in the decades since her murder in an Austin suburb, just weeks before she planned to marry her fiance, Jimmy Fennell, a local police officer. His trial attorneys cast blame on Fennell or on David Lawhon, who was convicted of strangling another woman in a similar case shortly after Stites’ murder, according to an archive article from the Austin American-Statesman in 1998. His defense attorneys pointed to an unidentified hair found on Stites’ back and an unidentified fingerprint and palm print as evidence that someone else committed the murder.
“Doesn’t that make you hesitate?” defense attorney Calvin Garvey asked jurors at Reed’s 1998 trial. “And if you hesitate, you have a reasonable doubt, and if you have a reasonable doubt, you must acquit.”
DNA evidence found in Stites’ body matched Reed, but his attorneys have maintained she had a relationship with Reed. They said Stites and Reed had consensual sex and that Fennell murdered his fiancee after discovering the affair, establishing motive for the murder.
“Rodney Reed and Stacey Stites were having a consensual sexual relationship,” The Innocence Project reported. “At the time of the trial, no one came forward to corroborate their relationship. But today, new witnesses including Stacey’s own cousin and co-worker have corroborated Rodney’s claim that they knew that he and Stacey were romantically involved.”
Prosecutors at Reed’s trial discounted the defense’s claims about the affair, according to the 1998 article.
“Folks, the secret affair was so secret, Stacey Stites didn’t even know about it,” Prosecutor Lisa Tanner told the jury.
Stites’ Family Expressed Consolation to Reed’s Family After the Verdict Was Announced
A reporter who sat in the courtroom during Reed’s 1998 trial described silence save the sounds of weeping after Reed’s guilty verdict was announced. Stites’ family was overcome with emotion after they heard the verdict, feeling intense relief when they learned the man they believe was responsible for the 19-year-old woman’s death was convicted.
“Relief, relief,” Carol Stites, Stacey Stites’ mom, told reporter Dave Harmon after the verdict was read, according to his article.
That did not stop them from feeling empathy for Reed’s family, even in the moments after the verdict was announced.
“But our hearts go out to (Reed’s) family. They obviously love him,” Debra Rangel, Stacey Stites’ sister, told Harmon.
Reed’s family wept “in agony” after the verdict was read, the reporter wrote. The archive article said Reed’s family believed the wrong man was convicted, but they did not provide comment following the verdict.
At the time, Reed had not yet faced the penalty phase of his trial, which would determine whether he would be sentenced to death or life in prison.