Texas Court Holds Innocence Hearing for Rodney Reed, as Advocates Rally in Support

Lawyers for Texas death-row prisoner Rodney Reed (pictured) presented four days of testimony in a Bastrop County courthouse in an attempt to establish his innocence of the murder of Stacy Stites, as activists, religious leaders, and members of Reed’s family rallied in support of his case.

The hearing, which is expected to take two weeks, began on July 19, 2021, with Reed’s case for innocence. His lawyers presented evidence that Reed, who is Black, was having an 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. Numerous witnesses testified that they had seen Stites together with Reed on prior occasions, heard Fennell threaten to kill her if she cheated on him, and heard Fennell admit to the killing. Two forensics experts testified that Stites died hours earlier than the prosecution had claimed, at a time that Fennell had said she was with him. Fennell took the stand and denied that he had committed the killing.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered the hearing in November 2019, when it halted Reed’s execution just five days before the state planned to execute him. Reed’s supporters gathered outside the courthouse on July 17, 2021, two days before the start of a hearing, to rally in support of his case, and they packed the courtroom each day of the hearing.

Speaking to the crowd at the rally, Reed’s brother, Rodrick vowed, “We’re not going to stop because we know the truth. And we’re going to stand on the truth because it remains the same. And we will stand today to see justice done in this case.” Reed also spoke to his supporters via speaker phone during the rally, urging them to “Continue the struggle. Continue the fight.”

Prosecutors at Reed’s 1998 trial alleged that Reed did not know Stites, but abducted, raped, and killed her. Reed’s lawyers presented testimony at the hearing supporting his claim that he and Stites were having a secret affair at the time of her death.

The Evidence at the Hearing

Two of Stites’ coworkers at a Bastrop grocery store testified about Stites’ relationship with Reed. Alicia Slater said Stites told her she was not excited about marrying Fennell because she was “sleeping with a Black man named Rodney.” Another coworker, Susan Hugen, reported that when Stites introduced her to Reed, “[s]he said, ‘This is my very good friend, Rodney.’ She was very flirty with him. Giggly and happy.” Hugen also testified that she saw indications that Stites was being abused by Fennell — bruises on her arms, including one in the shape of a handprint. Once, when she was talking with Stites outside the store and Fennell arrived, Hugen testified, “She was white as a ghost and quit laughing.”

In 2008, Fennell was sentenced to ten years in prison for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman after he responded to her call for police assistance. Two men who were imprisoned with him testified at the hearing that he had confessed to killing Stites. Michael Bordelon said Fennell “told me ‘a damn (n-word)’ killed his fiancée and that man was on death row.” Later in that conversation, Bordelon testified, Fennell amended his story. “I took care of her,” Bordelon quoted Fennell as saying, simulating strangulation. “That damn (n-word) is going to do the time.”

Arthur Snow, who said he met Fennell in prison when Fennell sought protection from a white supremacist gang, told the court that Fennell said, “You wouldn’t believe how easily a belt would break, strangling a (n-word)-loving whore.” When Stites’ body was found, the belt that was used to strangle her was in two pieces.

An insurance salesperson, Ruby Volek, testified that while Stites was filling out a life insurance form that Volek had given her, she heard Fennell say to Stites, “If I ever catch you messing around on me, I will kill you, and nobody will ever know I did it.” Lee Clampit, a retired Lee County Deputy who knew Fennell and attended Stites’ funeral service testified that, during the service, Fennell had said to him, “She got what she deserved.”

Reed’s lawyers also presented forensic testimony from two doctors who testified that the state of Stites’ body at the time it was discovered indicated that she had died earlier than the 3-5 a.m. window presented by the prosecution at trial, during a time that Fennell had said he was with Stites. Forensic pathologist Dr. Gregory Davis also rebutted scientifically false testimony from the state’s forensic pathologist that intact sperm can live no longer than 26 hours. Prosecutors had argued at trial 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.

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.

Perhaps the most dramatic testimony occurred on the fourth day of the hearing, when Fennell waived his constitutional privilege against self-incrimination and took the stand. Fennell denied having killed Stites and said that the witnesses who had testified that Stites knew Reed, that Fennell had abused Stites, and that Fennell had admitted to the killing had been lying. He likewise accused the two doctors who testified for Reed regarding the time of death of lying.

Asked by Reed’s lawyer, Andrew MacRae, if he had strangled Stites, Fennell replied, “I did not strangle her.” When MacRae suggested, “A reasonable person could conclude that it was you who killed Miss Stites, not Rodney Reed,” Fennell said, “No. They’re just telling what they think they heard. They’re lies.”

After court adjourned, Roderick Reed said: “All I know is that Jimmy Fennell has been sitting up there calling everybody else liars and everything he’s saying is the truth and that’s something that anyone with common sense would not believe.”

“All the evidence points toward Jimmy Fennell,” he said. “Everything points to Jimmy Fennell. So, in the end he’s going to get his.”

The hearing is expected to continue for a second week, after which Judge J.D. Langley will then consider the evidence and issue an advisory opinion. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will review Judge Langley’s decision and the evidence presented at the hearing before making the final determination whether to grant Reed a new trial.

As Reed’s execution date neared in November 2019, supporters submitted petitions signed by nearly 3 million people asking Governor Greg Abbott to commute his death sentence. That effort was joined by a bipartisan coalition of 26 members of the Texas House of Representatives and 16 Texas State Senators, as well as U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and Texas Congressman Michael McCaul (both Republicans), the European Union, and the president of the American Bar Association. Reed’s case also received high profile support from syndicated television host, Dr. Phil McGraw, who aired a two-part episode about the case, Oprah Winfrey, superstar performers Beyoncé, Meek Mill, Questlove, and Rihanna, anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, conservative television host and Texas native Chuck Woolery, and reality television personality Kim Kardashian West.