Small Town Injustice for Rodney Reed

Reed, pictured on death-row with images of his children.

Reed, pictured on death-row with images of his children.

Nineteen-year-old Stacey Stites was found strangled in the woods off a county road in Bastrop, Texas, in 1996. She was half-naked, and Rodney Reed’s DNA was found inside of her. Stites was white. Reed is black. In less than two months, Reed is scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas.

The real story, it turns out, isn’t quite that simple.

In 1995, Stites moved to Bastrop to be closer to her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, then a police officer for a neighboring town. She was employed at a local grocery store, often reporting to work in the wee hours of the morning to stock the day’s produce. She was last seen on April 23rd, 1996; Fennell claims that she left their home at 3:30 to report for an early shift at the store. 12 hours later, her body was found by the side of the road. One year later, DNA testing from a vaginal swab taken from her body matched to Reed, 29, who was arrested and charged with capital murder. If you’re just hearing the prosecution’s side of the case, it seems fairly airtight: black man with a history of sexual violence (Reed had been accused of rape once in the past) accosts a white female on her way to work, rapes her, strangles her, steals her car and then abandons it several blocks away. Given the dearth of any other probative biological evidence, Reed’s DNA (which was determined to have been deposited 24 hours or more before Stites’ death) is a glass-slipper for the prosecution.

Since the moment of his arrest a year after the murder, Reed has maintained his innocence of the crime. He claims that the DNA can be explained by the fact that he and Stites had been conducting an illicit affair for months leading up to her death. Multiple witnesses have given sworn testimony corroborating Reed’s claims.

The biological evidence – or lack thereof – doesn’t align with the prosecution’s version of events. They claim that Reed drove Stites’ car a number of blocks away after the murder, eventually ditching it in a high-school parking lot. They were also adamant that Stites had been strangled with a belt that was found close to her body; yet the only fingerprints found in the truck belonged to Fennell and Stites; no hairs or other biological traces found on Stites were connected to Reed; no witnesses saw them together that morning. The police investigation of Fennell—supposedly the last person to see her alive—was perfunctory at best. Despite the fact that Stites lived with Fennell, their apartment was never searched, and the police returned the red pick-up truck that Stites drove that night before evidence testing was completed. Fennell hastily sold the vehicle.

More damning is the pattern of violence towards women that Fennell has displayed. He is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for the kidnapping and sexual assault of a woman while he was on duty and responding to a call for police service. According to police reports, this was not Fennell’s first offense: he also forced a woman he met during a Georgetown, Texas traffic stop to have sex with him, abused his (now) ex-wife, and stalked a woman in 1997 while working for the Giddings, Texas Police Department. These incidents were either not reported or  simply ignored by local law enforcement; regardless, they paint a picture of a dangerous man who abused his police credentials with impunity. None of Fennell’s sexually predatory tendencies were revealed to the jury that convicted Reed in 1996, and despite a court’s admission that this new character evidence “arouse[s] a healthy suspicion that Fennell had some involvement in Stacey’s death,” all of Reed’s attempts to secure a new trial have been rejected.

Curiously, the pieces of belt found at the crime scene have never been subjected to DNA testing. In a capital case with very little physical evidence supporting guilt, does it not make sense to test all the evidence available – and at the very least the murder weapon itself? In fact, the defense wasn’t able to conduct additional testing on any evidence found inside or on the truck, because the truck was released to Fennell a mere six days after Stites’ body was found. The state of Texas is also refusing to submit a condom found near Stites’ body, as well as some additional items of her clothing, for DNA testing.

Lastly:  the most ludicrous premise on which the prosecution’s case rests is the notion that Reed’s semen in Stites’ body indicates that he murdered her, not simply that he had sex with her. Reed is a black man, accused of killing a young white woman engaged to a white police officer in a small Texas town, so that absurd leap of logic seems to be enough.

It’s possible that the myriad questions surrounding Reed’s guilt may remain forever unanswered. But the request from his Innocence Project attorneys is fairly straightforward: test the available DNA evidence before execution. Unless something changes, Reed will be killed by the state of Texas on January 15, 2015. The order of operations should not be execute first and ask questions later — you can’t free a dead man.

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