Appeals Court Stays Rodney Reed's Execution

After new forensic evidence, death row inmate's execution delayed

Rodney Reed on death row, 2002.
Rodney Reed on death row, 2002. (by Photo by Jana Birchum)

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay on the execution of Rodney Reed Monday afternoon, noting that it needed more time to consider newly discovered evidence that “supports [Reed’s] claim that he is actually innocent.”

Reed, 47, was scheduled for execution on March 5, after 17 years spent on death row for the April 23, 1996, sexual assault and murder of Giddings 19-year-old Stacey Stites. He’s maintained his innocence since being arrested for the murder in 1997, contesting instead that his relationship with Stites was consensual and that he did not even see her on the morning in which she was murdered. Five previous appeals to the CCA were denied, however, despite mounting evidence that he may not have actually committed the crime.

On Friday, Feb. 13, Reed’s attorneys filed a lengthy appeal to the CCA that included affidavits from two of Stites’ colleagues at the Bastrop H-E-B and three from recognized forensic pathologists, some of whom had consulted with Reed’s attorneys in the past. The two colleagues both recognized Reed’s affair with Stites; one says Reed kept it secret because Stites was engaged to Giddings police officer Jimmy Fennell Jr. and that, as a black man from Bastrop, his relationship with a young white woman would likely not be welcomed.

The three affidavits from the forensic pathologists, however, are likely what’s helped grant Reed today’s stay. In their reports, Doctors Werner Spitz, LeRoy Riddick, and Michael Baden all concluded that Stites did not die after 3am on the morning of April 23, but rather some time well before that – in another location from where her body was found – during the time of day in which Fennell has testified that the two were alone together. The three doctors also argued that Stites’ body maintained a level of rigor mortis that was not consistent with her previously accepted-as-fact time of death, and 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 four to five hours.

“We’d missed it,” Reed’s attorney Bryce Benjet said of the discrepancies over Stites’ time of death. “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.”

The CCA’s order reviews each of the previous five times in which it denied Reed’s appeals but (not surprisingly) doesn’t get into the validity to each appeal’s argument. Questions concerning whether or not Reed actually killed Stites have run rampant since he was arrested for the murder – which occurred for no other reason than that investigators were able to track a few samples of semen found in Stites’ vagina back to Reed’s DNA. But, in addition to a number of other inconsistencies that ran rampant throughout Reed’s trial and the ensuing efforts to save his life, no other physical evidence tied Reed to the crime: his fingerprints weren’t found on Fennell’s truck Stites apparently drove from her apartment on her way to the H-E-B; beer cans found near her body didn’t show any trace of Reed’s presence, either. There has also never been any direct evidence that Reed ever handled the murder weapon: Stites’ belt, used for the purpose of strangulation. A late November attempt to have DNA testing conducted on the belt proved unsuccessful in the Bastrop County court.

No timetable currently exists for the CCA’s decision on Reed’s future.

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Rodney Reed, Stacey Stites, Werner Spitz, Michael Baden, LeRoy Riddick, Bryce Benjet, Jimmy Fennell, Jr., Roberto Bayardo, Lee Roy Ybarra, Alicia Slater

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