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Rodney Reed’s execution date put on hold

New evidence may be allowed

Isabell Rivera OW Contributor | 11/21/2019, midnight

Rodney Reed has been all over the news for the past couple of months, since his case stirred up quite a commotion, even among celebrities. Reed has been incarcerated for the past 21 years, for a crime he said he didn’t commit.

Reed was sentenced to death for the murder and rape of 19-year-old Stacey Stites. Nov. 20 was scheduled to be the date of his execution, but thanks to the Innocence Project and various petitions to stop his execution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals put a hold on his execution for 120 days. Supporters hope to come up with new evidence to help his case.

Reed has maintained his innocence and although there’s a hold on his execution date, he’s still not a free man. The Innocence Project senior staff attorney Bryce Benjey, who is Reed’s lawyer in the case has filed a petition to the United States Supreme Court, demanding it to review new and complete evidence, after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected important evidence of Reed’s innocence in his conviction for the 1996 murder of Stites.

The only evidence reportedly found against Reed was his DNA, which he confirmed was present because he claims he had a discreet and reportedly consensual sexual relationship with Stites. However, at the time of the trial, no witnesses came forward in Reed’s favor. But now Stites’ cousin, as well as a co-worker, have confirmed Reed’s relationship to Stites.

The alleged murder weapon - a belt - was reportedly never tested for DNA evidence. Although, DNA testing of the crime scene evidence has been frequently requested, it has been denied regularly by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Reed’s lawyers are convinced that a more thorough investigation of DNA tests of the crime scene would prove Reed’s innocence. This request has been denied. Therefore, a federal court lawsuit was filed, as well as a petition to stop the execution.

The new evidence, if allowed to assists in Reed’s defense, would both overturn the state’s case and also verify the investigation by the police department and its initial suspicions of former police officer Jimmy Fennell, who was Stites’ fiancé. Fennell was the prime suspect for months after Stites’ murder, according to the police investigation, which now indicates that Fennell was driven to murder Stites because of her relationship with another man.

Fennell, who was recently released after a 10-year prison sentence for kidnapping and assaulting another woman, is now being questioned because of inconsistent statements about where he was at the time of Stites’ murder. Reed’s lawyers have said the new evidence includes statements from two witnesses who claim to have information on Fennell that links him to the case. The first witness, an insurance salesperson, stated that he overheard Fennell threaten to kill Stites if he discovered she was cheating on him. The second witness was a deputy in the Lee County Sheriff’s Office at the time of the murder. That witness reportedly overheard Fennell making disturbing and alarming statements about Stites at her funeral, allegedly saying, “You got what you deserved.”

Also, each of the state’s witnesses, who initially supported the theory that Reed was the prime suspect, have either modified or withdrawn their statements.

Benjey said, “The evidence supporting Reed’s innocence is uncontradicted and undeniable, and without the Supreme Court’s intervention, I fear the State of Texas may execute an innocent man.”

Roberto Bayardo, M.D., the state medical examiner, has withdrawn his original trial statement that became the core of the prosecution’s case against Reed. Bayardo now says that the forensic evidence confirms Reed’s defense in regards to him having a discreet sexual relationships with Stites, and that the two were together a day before her death.

According to a number of well-known forensic scientists, including Dr. LeRoy Riddick and Dr. Cyril Wecht, the evidence against Reed would have made it virtually “impossible” to convict him. The only DNA that linked Reed to the crime scene was semen found on Stites body, which refers to the consensual sexual relationship. Prosecutors used that to connect Reed to the murder of Stites, but the supporting testimony has since been denied in the state’s case.

Also, well known pathologists Dr. Werner Spitz, and Dr. Michael Baden have decided without negation that the state’s theory of Stites being raped and killed within a two-hour period is scientifically and medically problematic to verify.

Furthermore, the petition also addressed evidence supporting the Bastrop, Texas investigation of Fennell as a suspect in the case. Fennell’s former best friend, Officer Curtis Davis, who testified at the hearing in 2017, said Fennell spent the day in question, April 23, 1996, with him, while police were searching for Stites who missed her 3:30 a.m. shift. Officer Davis recollected that Fennell claimed to have been out drinking with other officers the night before and that Fennell was out late, not to disturb Stites. However, this story was completely different from what Fennell told investigators and at trial, saying he spent a quiet evening at home with Stites. By contradicting his statements - where he later stated he was with Stites the night of her murder - made the actual time of death more accurate, according to Baden’s updated statement.

Fennell maintained his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, after being called to the witness stand in the 2017 hearing to explain the inconsistencies in his statement. The petition states that Fennell’s inconsistency about his whereabouts at the time of the murder allegedly confirms that “Fennell lied about the events that occurred the night of April 22, 1996, to his best friend Officer Davis, the police and, later, the jury.”

The filing also claims that Reed’s constitutional rights were violated with the use of false evidence to convict him, and that Reed’s case was charged racially, since Stites was a White woman, and the jury was all-White as well. The forensic experts who connected Reed with the murder also confirmed to scientific errors in their original statements, which were the core to Reed’s conviction.

“In cases of similar errors by the FBI crime lab, prosecutors and the courts have correctly stepped in to make sure criminal convictions are not secured with invalid science,” said Benjey. “Especially in a case where there is already powerful evidence of innocence, we are asking the Supreme Court to address the grave harm when criminal convictions and even death sentences are obtained with invalid scientific evidence.”

In conjunction and support from the Innocence Project, Reed’s family has also created an initiative, called the “Reed Justice Initiative,” to help save Reed from execution. At the same time, the initiative was also designed to support families who are going through similar circumstances. Nationally recognized activist Sister Helen Prejan, who’s against capital punishment, is also in support of exonerating Reed.