The Austin Chronicle

Rodney Reed's Attorneys Seek Retrial

By Chase Hoffberger, February 12, 2015, 6:50pm, Newsdesk

Attorneys for Rodney Reed filed a brief in a Bastrop County court this afternoon that argues information concerning Stacey Stites' time of death is inaccurate, and that the discrepancy should be enough to warrant a retrial.

The filing comes on the heels of affidavits from forensic pathologists Dr. LeRoy Riddick (who has now written four opinions on Stites’ death since 2003), former Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York Dr. Michael Baden, and Dr. Werner Spitz, whose textbook Medicolegal Investigation of Death is recognized as “the bible of forensic pathology.” All three conclude four inconsistencies: that the standard habits of rigor mortis (the stiffening of the body after death) imply that Stites died well before 3:30am on April 23, 1996; that lividity (discoloration due to pooling of blood after death) found on Stites’ face, shoulder, and arm indicates that she was dead and in a different position from that which she was found for a period of at least 4-5 hours (enough time for the blood in those areas to pool); that the three intact spermatozoa found on CSI autopsy smears (taken that afternoon) were not enough to prove Stites had been sexually assaulted between 3 and 5am; and that former Travis County Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo’s determination that Stites was anally raped wields no conclusive evidence. Baden’s affidavit adds additional insight into the fluid found in the truck believed to be used to dump Stites’ body.

Reed’s attorney Bryce Benjet also submitted two affidavits from H-E-B colleagues of Stites. One, from Lee Roy Ybarra, recalls seeing warm, flirtatious interactions between Reed and Stites and that Stites would become “a nervous wreck” who would “deliberately hide" when her fiancé, Giddings police officer Jimmy Fennell Jr., would come by the grocery store. The other, from Bastrop native and California resident Alicia Slater (née Griesemer) – details a conversation with Stites in which she confided to not being excited about marrying Fennell because “she was sleeping with a black guy named Rodney and … didn’t know what her fiancé would do if he found out.”

2005 testimony from Dallas police officer Mary Blackwell indicated that she had heard Fennell bragging during a police training class that he’d strangle his girlfriend if he found out she’d been cheating on him.

The implications of Slater and Ybarra’s testimonies pale in comparison to those offered by Riddick, Baden, and Spitz, however. According to their reviews of autopsy reports and photos, crime scene photos and video, and other assorted reports on the site alongside County Road 1441, where Stites’ body was discovered, the three independently concluded that enough inconsistencies exist to debunk the belief that Stites died the morning of April 23. Instead, as Spitz specifies: “all findings point to a postmortem interval of about 20-24 hours prior to the time the body was filmed” (shortly after 5pm).

Acceptance of Riddick and Spitz’s opinions would refute the story provided by Jimmy Fennell, who testified during trial that he and Stites retired to their apartment at roughly 8:30pm on April 22 and that the two were asleep until Stites left for work at 3am. Rather, Benjet says, the opinions would support the opinion that Stites “was killed at home” and “left in a position in some other location other than the dump site for four to six hours.

“We know that she was dead in the truck, because there’s a pool of mucus on the floorboard,” he explains. “Either she was stored in the truck for four to six hours or she was stored somewhere else, transported in the truck, and then dumped. The condition of the body is then consistent with her being dumped between 3 and 5am.”

Benjet admitted to having overlooked the possibility that Stites’ death could have occurred before the accepted time of 3am because he was distracted by Bastrop resident Martha Barnett’s testimony (ultimately ruled not credible) that she saw Fennell and Stites arguing in the parking lot of the Old Frontier bar and grille around 5am the morning of Stites’ death. Benjet said that he was working on last November’s ultimately unsuccessful appeal to introduce DNA testing on the belt used to strangle Stites when he received a call from Kevin Gannon, a retired NYPD detective looking into Reed’s case for the A&E’s “Dead Again,” who suggested Stites may have been killed before midnight when she was still in her apartment. Benjet passed the possibility along to Dr. Riddick, who agreed with the hypothesis. “We’d missed it,” said Benjet. “The state based their whole theory on the case on the police telling them that [3am] was when she left for work and would have been abducted.”

Benjet filed today’s appeal with the Bastrop County District Clerk's Office, though the case will be immediately forwarded to the Court of Criminal Appeals which will determine if a hearing is warranted. It comes on the same day that Reed’s attorneys submit an appeal for clemency. On Sunday at 2pm, Sister Helen Prejean – the Louisiana nun and author of Dead Man Walking who’s long fought for the abolition of the death penalty – arrives at the Friends Meeting of Austin (2pm at 3701 E. MLK) to join Reed’s family, members of Stites’ family, who’ve been supportive of Reed’s case, and other supporters for an afternoon gathering. Rodney Reed is currently scheduled to be executed on March 5.

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