Reed Appeal Shot Down

Judge says witness testimony challenging state's version of facts in capital murder case against Rodney Reed during a March evidentiary hearing wasn't credible, the testimony probably wouldn't have helped Reed at 1998 trial, and no evidence exists that the Bastrop Co. District Attorney's Office committed misconduct by withholding potential evidence from Reed's defenders

Rodney Reed
Rodney Reed (Photo By Jana Birchum)

In the opinion of Bastrop Co. District Judge Reva Towslee Corbett, witness testimony challenging the state's version of the facts in the capital murder case against Rodney Reed during a March evidentiary hearing was not credible, the testimony likely would not have helped Reed at his 1998 trial, and there is no evidence the Bastrop Co. District Attorney's Office committed misconduct by withholding potential exculpatory evidence from Reed's defenders. Therefore, Corbett concluded, Reed should not be given a new trial.

Reed "fails to demonstrate that his conviction was unlawfully obtained," read the findings of fact and conclusions of law document Corbett signed earlier this month. "Accordingly, it is recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that relief be denied."

Reed, 38, was convicted in May 1998 of killing Stacey Stites, a 20-year-old Giddings resident, as she drove to work for an early-morning shift at the Bastrop HEB on April 23, 1996. Stites was strangled with a belt and her body was dumped just north of town; the red pickup truck she was driving – which belonged to her fiancé Jimmy Fennell Jr., then a Giddings Police Depart-ment officer – was found in the Bastrop High School parking lot. Although DNA evidence on Stites body led investigators to Reed, none of the other physical evidence tied him to the crime. Reed has maintained his innocence, explaining that he'd been having an affair with Stites, which would account for the presence of his DNA. Reed's supporters say Fennell, now a Georgetown cop, is a far more likely suspect – he knew of Reed and Stites' relationship, they maintain, and was not happy about it. Although Fennell was initially a suspect, police never searched the apartment he shared with Stites, and they quickly returned his red truck – long before trial and before exhaustive testing on the interior could be conducted – which he subsequently sold.

Although Reed's trial attorneys promised jurors evidence of the affair and sought to present Fennell as a compelling suspect, they failed to do either. That strategy failed partly because Bastrop DA Charles Penick withheld from the defense exculpatory evidence that would have helped firm up the defense, argued Reed appeal attorneys Morris Moon, of the Texas Defender Service, and former Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Morris Overstreet. Federal district Judge Lee Yeakel last year bounced Reed's case back through the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to Corbett's state district court to hear testimony related to the allegedly withheld information – including the testimony of Martha Barnett, who said she saw Stites and Fennell arguing in a convenience store parking lot around 5am the morning Stites was murdered, and the testimony of Mary Blackwell who, during a police training class, said she heard Fennell bragging he would strangle his girlfriend with a belt as punishment for any infidelity. Corbett was charged with considering the evidence and with recommending to the CCA whether Reed should get a new trial. On June 7, Corbett made her ruling, recommending the CCA deny Reed relief, by signing a 20-page summary of the March hearing proposed by Assistant Attorney General Lisa Tanner, who was also part of Reed's original prosecution team. Corbett did not write her own opinion, preferring to agree with the state's view of the case. (Although that's not uncommon, Reed's attorneys filed a motion asking that Corbett write her own opinion; Corbett signed off on the state's proposed findings without ruling on that motion.) Among the state's findings: Barnett's story was not credible because she "failed to provide a satisfactory explanation" as to why she failed to tell police or another authority about seeing Fennell and Stites. Over a year later, in January 1998, Barnett did tell former Lee Co. Attorney Steven Keng that she had seen the couple and Keng testified that he took the information to Penick, who Keng said laughed it off, saying he had all the evidence against Reed that he needed. Again, Corbett accepted the state's conclusion that Keng was not as credible as the state's own witness, former DA Penick, who denies ever hearing such a thing. Corbett also agreed that Blackwell's story about the police academy training class she attended with Fennell was similarly not credible because she too failed to report the incident to authorities.

Corbett's recommendations are now before the CCA, which will rule on whether to accept or reject her conclusions, or whether further proceedings are necessary. (For more on the Reed case, see "Who Killed Stacey Stites?" May 24, 2002.)

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The Chronicle has covered Rodney Reed’s case for nearly 20 years. For more, visit our Rodney Reed archive.

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Rodney Reed, capital murder, death penalty, Reva Townslee Corbett, Morris Moon, Maurice Overstreet, Texas Defender Service, Charles Penick, Stacey Stites, Jimmy Fennell, Martha Barnett, Mary Blackwell, Stephen Keng

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