The Austin Chronicle

Capital Judicial Pinball

By Jordan Smith, March 24, 2006, News

At press time, lawyers for convicted death row inmate Rodney Reed were preparing for a hearing in Bastrop Co. district court, where Reed's case was remanded for a hearing based on his contention that prosecutors stifled exculpatory evidence during his original trial. Reed was convicted in May 1998 for the rape and murder of 20-year-old 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 the HEB. The state's theory was based solely on DNA that matched Reed – no other physical evidence tied him to the crime. Reed has maintained his innocence, explaining that his DNA was found on Stites because the two had been having an affair, while Stites was engaged to former Giddings police officer Jimmy Fennell. (Reed's supporters contend that Fennell is a far more likely suspect in the murder – he knew of the affair, they maintain, and was not at all happy about it. For more on the case, see "Who Killed Stacey Stites?" May 24, 2002.)

According to appeals filed by lawyers with the Texas Defender Service, Reed's attorneys have uncovered evidence supporting his innocence that was never made available to the defense. Among the allegedly withheld information is the testimony of Martha Barnett, who said she saw Stites and Fennell together around 5am on the morning she was killed. Barnett's attorney, former Lee Co. Attorney Steven Keng, said in an affidavit that he passed Barnett's information to Bastrop Co. District Attorney Charles Pennick, who prosecuted Reed, but Pennick laughed at the story, saying only that he "did not want to hear any more about the case."

The potentially explosive evidence prompted the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in October to send Reed's case back to Bastrop Co., where a district judge will consider its validity, and potential impact on Reed's conviction, during a two-day hearing starting today, March 23.

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