Court Rejects New Evidence in Rodney Reed Death Penalty Case

Rodney Reed in court in 2017 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Texas has once again rejected Rodney Reed’s claims of innocence.

On June 28, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the testimony of new witnesses delivered at a 2021 hearing – considered a breakthrough in the case at the time – was not believable and wouldn’t have changed Reed’s guilty verdict.

Reed recently began his 25th year of solitary confinement at the Allan Polunsky Unit in East Texas. He was sentenced to death by an all-white jury in 1998 for the rape and murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop after his semen was found in Stites’ body. Reed argued at his trial that he and Stites had been having a secret affair – a contention that prosecutors ridiculed – and that Stites was probably murdered by her fiance, then-police officer Jimmy Fennell, after Fennell discovered the affair. Prosecutors presented evidence that Reed and Fennell had not known one another – a crucial contention for their theory of the case, which was that Reed had randomly kidnapped and attacked Stites in the early morning hours of April 23, 1996.

In the weeks leading up to the 2021 evidentiary hearing, state prosecutors turned over hitherto-unseen evidence demonstrating that Bastrop County investigators had found witnesses who were aware of the existence of a relationship between Reed and Stites, but had not shared this knowledge with Reed’s attorneys, as required by law. Judge J.D. Langley, who presided over the hearing, ultimately decided these witnesses were not credible, a decision that has now been seconded by the appeals court. Reed’s attorneys believe the decisions amount to a whitewash.

“For 23 years, Texas illegally hid evidence that could have exonerated Rodney Reed,” said Jane Pucher of the Innocence Project, one of the attorneys representing Reed. “He is an innocent man. Texans should be outraged that prosecutorial misconduct is going unchecked and the State is being given a license to cheat – even if it means sending an innocent man to his death.”

Reed came within five days of being executed in November 2019, before an outpouring of public support from celebrities and millions worldwide helped convince the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals to schedule the 2021 evidentiary hearing. At the hearing, Reed’s attorneys presented three witnesses who testified that Stites’ fiance, Fennell, knew she was having an affair with a Black man and had threatened to kill her if she did. Two other witnesses testified that Fennell confessed to killing Stites after he was sentenced to prison for charges related to his rape of a woman while working as a police officer in Georgetown. The most dramatic testimony came from Arthur Snow, a fellow inmate of Fennell’s. “He said in my presence, ‘You wouldn’t believe how easily a belt can break when you strangle a n—-r-loving whore,'” Snow told the court.

The TCCA agreed with Judge Langley that this testimony was also noncredible, surprising those who saw the testimony in person, who felt just the opposite. “The abdication of Judge Langley to be an unbiased, deliberative, independent fact finder cannot be tolerated, especially when an innocent man’s life is at stake,” Pucher said. “It is not plausible that Judge Langley could find every witness for the State to be credible and every witness called by Mr. Reed to be not credible.”

Pucher said that Reed will appeal the TCCA’s decision to the Supreme Court. The higher court ruled in April that Reed’s request for DNA testing of the belt used to strangle Stites, and other objects from the crime scene, should go forward. Reed has been attempting to get the items tested for more than 20 years, with the state throwing up roadblocks every step of the way.

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The Chronicle has covered Rodney Reed’s case for nearly 20 years. For more, visit our Rodney Reed archive.