By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune
"Texas court stops Rodney Reed’s execution to further review claims of innocence" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Texas’ highest criminal court Friday afternoon halted Rodney Reed’s execution and sent his case back to the trial court to further review his claims of suppressed evidence, false testimony and, biggest of all, that he is innocent of the murder that landed him on death row more than 20 years ago.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ ruling came hours after the state’s parole board separately recommended Gov. Greg Abbott delay Reed’s execution. The ruling effectively preempts any gubernatorial involvement.
Earlier, the Texas parole board voted unanimously to recommend that Abbott halt the Wednesday execution of Reed amid mounting pressure from dozens of state and federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, A-list celebrities and millions of people who signed online petitions.
A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the vote and has not responded to repeated requests in recent weeks. Under normal procedures, the board would have voted Monday afternoon, but the chair can move the date of a vote.
“Obviously we are very encouraged by the recommendation,” Reed’s lead attorney, Bryce Benjet with the Innocence Project, told The Texas Tribune shortly after the vote. “We hope that the governor, after looking at all of the evidence in the case, is going to adopt that recommendation so that we can present this compelling evidence that Rodney Reed did not commit this crime.”
Benjet said a colleague was walking into the death row prison Friday afternoon to give Reed the news.
Abbott has stopped one execution since taking office in 2015, also at the unanimous urging of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. He agreed last year to change death row inmate Thomas Whitaker’s death sentence to one of life in prison minutes before Whitaker was set to be injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital in the state’s death chamber.
But that case was about mercy and granting the wishes of Whitaker’s only surviving victim, his father. Reed’s case instead questions the guilty verdict that landed him on death row — a verdict the Texas justice system has upheld by for decades. Before Whitaker, no Texas governor had stopped an execution for more than a decade. Abbott has allowed 48 executions to proceed.
Reed, now 51, was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1996 murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop. For more than two decades, Reed has maintained his innocence. His lawyers have consistently pointed to new evidence — presenting new witnesses even this week — that they say instead puts suspicion on Stites’ fiance, Jimmy Fennell.
Both Reed and Fennell have been accused of multiple sexual assaults. Reed was indicted, but never convicted, in several other rape cases. Fennell spent 10 years in prison after he kidnapped and allegedly raped a woman while on duty as a police officer in 2007.
Stites’ body was found partially unclothed in Bastrop County hours after she didn’t show up to her grocery store job, according to court records. Fennell’s truck was found abandoned in a nearby school parking lot. Pieces of Stites’ belt, which is believed to have been used to strangle her, were found at both locations.
Fennell was originally a suspect, but the prosecution turned to Reed about a year later when they found sperm cells that matched him inside her body. Reed said he and Stites had a consensual, casual relationship. His attorneys recently brought forward witnesses like Stites’ cousin and co-workers to corroborate that claim, but Bastrop County prosecutors and Stites’ family strongly deny it. Reed’s lawyers argued his case highlights long-standing prejudices doubting that Reed, a black man, would be romantically involved with Stites, a white woman. He was convicted by an all-white jury.
Reed had appeals pending at multiple levels, from the trial court to the U.S. Supreme Court. In his appeals, he had repeatedly asked for, and been denied, DNA testing on the belt thought to have been used to strangle Stites. He also argued for a closer look at his case based on forensic evidence that has been reexamined, with the medical examiner now saying Reed’s sperm could have been in Stites’ body from consensual sex, and new witnesses, including a man who claims Fennell confessed to Stites’ murder to him while in prison.
In recent months, more and more people have called for a stop to Reed’s scheduled execution. Dozens of Texas House members and more than half of the state Senate — both Democrats and Republicans — signed on to letters to Abbott and the parole board asking for more time to review new evidence. Calls to stop Reed’s execution also came from numerous Democratic presidential candidates and A-list celebrities on daytime TV shows and the red carpet.