Death Watch: DNA Testing Denied for Rodney Reed

Reed and Pruett strike out. But justice for Duane Buck?

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed a Bastrop County court's decision to deny additional DNA testing to Rodney Reed. The state's highest criminal court stated in its April 12 opinion that Reed "cannot establish that exculpatory DNA results would have resulted in his acquittal and his motion is not made for the purpose of unreasonable delay."

Reed has been on death row since receiving a death sentence in 1998 for the murder and rape of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in nearby Bastrop. Reed, his supporters, and attorneys have maintained his innocence ever since. At the time of her death Stites was engaged to Giddings police officer Jimmy Fennell Jr., who was considered a suspect until DNA testing found Reed's semen inside Stites' body. Reed claims he and Stites had been having an affair. Today, Fennell also finds himself in prison: serving a 10-year sentence for raping a woman while on duty with the Georgetown Police Department. (He remains the primary person of interest in Stites' murder, according to Reed's support group.) In 2014 the Supreme Court denied Reed's request for relief, but less than six months later the CCA stayed his 2015 execution due to newly discovered evidence found by Reed's team.

Rodney Reed in 2002 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Bryce Benjet, the Innocence Project attorney who's represented Reed throughout the habeas process, called the CCA's decision "deeply flawed." He told the Chronicle: "Two experts testified without contradiction that DNA testing could identify a specific individual, such as Mr. Fen­nell, as the source of DNA on the evidence. This, in turn, could establish that individual's responsibility for the crime. However, the CCA refused to even consider the possibility that DNA testing would actually identify an individual – limiting its consideration to exclusionary results." Benjet said his team has confirmed that all the evidence in question still exists. He said he plans on "following the well-established avenues for review of requests for DNA testing in federal court," and will appeal the ruling "all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary."

No Shanks

A week earlier, the CCA dealt another blow to Robert Pruett, who's now likely to receive his fifth execution date. The court had most recently stayed Pruett's execution in August to review newly tested DNA evidence, which Pruett's lawyers argued should exonerate him from the 1999 murder of Beeville prison guard Daniel Nagle. Pruett was 20, and serving a 99-year sentence in Beeville as an accomplice to a murder committed by his father, when Nagle was found dead in his prison office, stabbed by a homemade knife. No physical evidence tied Pruett to the crime, save for a torn disciplinary report Nagle had filed against the inmate. Pruett has always held that he was framed for the crime. His appellate attorneys have spent the last few years demanding DNA testing on the shank. His trial court has twice ordered new testing, though both times the results have proved inconclusive.

Earlier this month, the CCA sided with the Bee County court where Pruett was sentenced, stating in a 31-page opinion that the lack of DNA evidence would not have affected Pruett's 2002 conviction and sentencing. CCA Judge Elsa Alcala filed a concurring opinion regarding the DNA decision, but said Pruett's case carried "significant problems with the evidence of guilt," and suggested "further attention by this Court is warranted, even if it means reopening appellant's subsequent habeas applications." Jeff Newberry, Pru­ett's lawyer, told the Texas Tribune he would "definitely" appeal the ruling in federal court.

Justice for Buck?

Not all is lost this month in Livingston. On Thursday, April 13, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, following a February order from the U.S. Supreme Court, granted Duane Buck a certificate of appealability and relief. Under the 5th Circuit's order, Buck is to be released from custody unless the state either pursues a new trial punishment or "elects not to seek the death penalty and accedes to a life sentence" within 180 days. Buck was convicted on two counts of capital murder in 1997, but racial bias and racist testimony played a large role in his sentencing. Walter Quijano, a psychologist testifying for the defense, told the jury that "the race factor" (i.e., being black) could be considered a "statistical factor" in gauging Buck's future dangerousness. SCOTUS had ruled in Buck's favor in late February and ordered the 5th Circuit take a new course of action.

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Death Watch, Robert Pruett, Duane Buck, Rodney Reed

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