The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday rejected death row inmate Rodney Reed’s latest innocence claims. The rejection came four years after the state’s highest courtfor the 1996 killing of 19-year-old Stacey Lee Stites.
Reed was arrested after his sperm was found inside Stites’ body. He pleaded not guilty, and in 1998 he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by an all-White jury.
Reed’s 25-year fight has, including from celebrities such as Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey, as well as from lawmakers from both parties.
In a 129-page ruling, Texas’s highest criminal court laid out the reasons they denied Reed’s claims that he didn’t commit the crime, and that the state suppressed material evidence and presented materially false testimony at trial.
Reed, who is Black, has long denied killing Stites, who is White. Reed initially said he didn’t know Stites, a supermarket worker, but later said he was having an affair with her and that they had consensual sex the day before her death. He continued to maintain he did not kill her.
Reed put forth numerous applications for his innocence since his conviction, primarily focusing on Stites’s police officer fiancée Jimmy Fennell as the real killer. Reed claimed Fennell killed his fiancée out of jealousy fueled by her secret interracial affair.
Both men have histories of sexual violence against women. In 2007, Fennell was convicted of kidnapping and allegedly raping a woman while he was on duty as a police officer. He spent 10 years in prison for the crime.
The court acknowledged the behaviors could add to the theory that Fennell could have killed Stites but said Reed’s legal team didn’t provide enough concrete evidence that would convince the court in that direction. Most importantly, Fennell’s misbehaviors didn’t prove Reed’s innocence, the court said, and he should have focused on explaining his own history of sexual violence.
Reed has been accused of six sexual assaults — and several of those assaults bore similarities to Stites’s murder, the court said. In one allegation, his legal defense was that he was having a consensual sexual hidden affair, the opinion said. These allegations showed to the court, “evidence of Reed’s extraneous conduct still casts a considerable pall over his claims of innocence.”
At several points in the ruling, the court cited the evidence presented by Reed and his legal team as weak and not sufficient to persuade the court.
Claims put forth by Reed’s team that Fennell and Stites had an abusive and controlling relationship was not the “kind of evidence one might expect from someone claiming to be able to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, a decades-old assertion about an engaged couple,” the court said.
Reed’s legal team also tried to show that Stites died several hours before 3 a.m. on April 23, 1996, when she was home alone with Fennell. This would have lent credence to Reed’s claim that Fennell killed Stites, however, the court said the attorneys failed to present scientific evidence of Stites’ death at the new alleged times. The science underlying time-of-death determinations have not changed much since the 1998 trial, the court said, and Reed’s legal team didn’t produce much new evidence, relying instead on “rough visual estimates” and “secondhand descriptions.”
The ruling concluded that none of the information presented by Reed “affirmatively demonstrates Reed’s innocence” or show that someone else committed the crime.
Reed has more legal obstacles ahead. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Reed should have a chance to argue for testing of crime-scene evidence and sent the case back to lower courts, indicating the possibility of additional hearings in the future.
Reporting contributed by Erin Donaghue