The Austin Chronicle

Another Hearing for Rodney Reed

By Jordan Smith, November 11, 2005, News

Nearly 7½ years after he was convicted and sentenced to die, death row inmate Rodney Reed is heading back to state district court in Bastrop Co. for a hearing on Reed's claims that prosecutors hid from the court evidence supporting his innocence. On Oct. 19, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that evidence of prosecutorial misconduct submitted by Reed's attorneys satisfies legal requirements necessary to remand the case back to the trial court for further consideration.

Reed was convicted in May of 1998 for the rape and murder two years earlier of 20-year-old Giddings resident Stacey Stites. Prosecutors argued that Reed overcame Stites in the predawn hours of April 23, 1996, as she drove from Giddings to Bastrop to work a shift at HEB. The state's theory was based solely on DNA that matched Reed – no other physical evidence linked Reed to the crime. Reed maintains his innocence, saying that he'd been having an affair with Stites (who was then engaged to marry former Giddings police officer Jimmy Fennell), which would explain the DNA results. Reed's supporters say Fennell is a far more likely suspect – he knew of Reed and Stites' relationship, they maintain, and was not happy about it. (For more on the case, see "Who Killed Stacey Stites?" May 24, 2002.)

Although Reed's trial attorneys promised jurors evidence of the affair, they failed to call witnesses who could confirm the relationship. Further, according to appeals filed by Reed's Texas Defender Service attorneys, in the years following Reed's conviction, the defense has uncovered additional exculpatory evidence that prosecutors never made available to Reed's trial defenders. Among the allegedly withheld information is the testimony of a woman named Martha Barnett, who said she saw Stites (whom she recognized from the HEB) and Fennell together around 5am on the morning Stites was killed – which contradicts Fennell's assertion that he was asleep when Stites left for work some time after 3am. Barnett repeated the story to her attorney, former Lee Co. Attorney Steven Keng, before Reed's trial began. According to an affidavit from Keng, he approached Bastrop Co. District Attorney Charles Pennick (who, with a special prosecutor from the Texas Attorney General's office, prosecuted Reed) to relay Barnett's story, but Pennick, whom Keng had known for more than 20 years, wasn't interested. "He laughed and told me that he had all the evidence he needed, and did not want to hear any more about the case," Keng wrote. Based on the Barnett and Keng evidence – along with other evidence that remains "under seal" with the CCA – the appellate court remanded Reed's case back to Bastrop Co. District Court for an as-yet-unscheduled hearing. "It's good news," says TDS attorney Morris Moon. "We've got a long way to go, but this is a good first step."

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