A Bastrop, Texas trial court heard closing arguments October 18, 2021 on whether Texas death-row prisoner Rodney Reed should be granted a new trial in the April 1996 murder of Stacey Stites. The argument concluded the adversarial portion of an extraordinary evidentiary hearing ordered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) to review Reed’s claims that prosecutors secured his convictions for rape and murder by suppressing exculpatory evidence and presenting false testimony.

The TCCA stayed Reed’s execution on November 15, 2019, just five days before he was scheduled to be put to death in a racially charged case that observers had likened to a 21st century lynching. Reed, who is Black, alleged that he had been having a secret affair with Stites, who is white; that Stites was actually murdered by her abusive fiancé, Jimmy Fennell; and that Fennell, who at that time was a police officer in Giddings, Texas, had framed Reed for the murder. Beginning on July 19, Reed’s lawyers presented four days of new evidence to Bastrop County District Court Judge J.D. Langley supporting his innocence claim, followed by rebuttal evidence presented by Texas prosecutors.

Langley indicated that he expects to make a recommendation to the TCCA, which retained jurisdiction over the case, by the end of October. The TCCA will determine whether to grant Reed a new trial, set him free, or leave his conviction in place.

The Evidence at the Hearing

At the hearing, Reed presented new evidence that he and Stites were involved in a consensual affair, that prosecutors presented false forensic testimony concerning the time Stites was murdered and suggesting that Reed had raped her, that Fennell committed the murder, and that a forensically correct timeline showed that Stites had died at a time Fennell himself had said he was with her. Two of Stites’ coworkers at a Bastrop grocery store testified that she said she was “sleeping with a Black man named Rodney,” introduced him as “my very good friend, Rodney,” and acted “very flirty” and “[g]iggly and happy” around him. They also testified that they saw indications shortly before her death that Fennell was abusing Stites.

Other witnesses heard Fennell threaten to kill her if she cheated on him and say at her funeral service that “She got what she deserved.” Fennell was later convicted and spent ten years in prison for a kidnapping and sexual assault he committed while on duty as a police officer. Two men who were incarcerated with him testified that Fennell had confessed to the killing. One of the men, Arthur Snow, testified that Fennell had said, “You wouldn’t believe how easily a belt would break, strangling a ni***r-loving whore.” When Stites’ body was found, the belt that was used to strangle her was in two pieces. Reed’s lawyers also presented evidence that Fennell had failed two polygraph tests about the murder, had no alibi for when the murder actually occurred, and cleaned out his bank account the morning Stites died.

Reed’s lawyers attacked the prosecution’s case with forensic testimony from two doctors who testified that the state’s forensic witness, forensic expert Dr. Suzanna Dana, had presented false testimony about how long the rigor mortis process takes. Despite notes in her own textbook that contradicted her testimony, Dana understated the time frame, allowing prosecutors to set the time of death between 3-5 a.m. The state of Stites’ body at the time it was discovered, including the start of the decomposition process, the defense experts testified, indicated that Stites had actually died earlier, at a time Fennell said Stites had been with him.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Gregory Davis also rebutted testimony from Texas Department of Public Safety forensic examiner Karen Blakely, who falsely informed the jury that intact sperm can live no longer than 26 hours. Prosecutors had used Blakely’s testimony to persuade the jury that the presence of Reed’s sperm in Stites’ body showed that he had raped Stites before killing her. Reed contended that he had had consensual sex with Stites days before her death. Sperm can remain intact for up to a week, Davis testified.

In closing arguments, Jane Pucher, an attorney with the Innocence Project who is representing Reed, said, the new evidence supports Reed’s request for a new trial. “A new jury, hearing this evidence, would have a reasonable doubt in this case,” she said.

Prosecutors attempted to rebut Reed’s case by arguing that the witnesses’ memories were faulty as a result of the passage of time. They also presented Fennell’s family members to say that they could not believe he would ever harm Stites. Finally, they presented the testimony of a woman who said that Reed had sexually assaulted her earlier in 1996.

Family members of Stites and Reed attended the hearing. Stites’ sister, Debra Oliver, said afterward that she still believes Reed killed her sister. “I think the state did a great job of proving that there’s never been any evidence of a relationship between Rodney and Stacey,” she told the Austin American-Statesman. Reed’s brother, Rodrick Reed, however, said he felt “pretty good” about the hearing. “All we ask for is a fair trial,” he said. “My brother never had that from the beginning. It was a Jim Crow trial straight out the gate. And so, if this time we can get a fair trial, the evidence will free Rodney Reed.”