Death Watch: Where’s Your Evidence?
Exculpatory testimony, DNA at issue for Rodney Reed, Robert Pruett
Rodney Reed, the Bastrop man who's spent nearly 20 years on death row for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites – a crime he has steadfastly maintained he did not commit – could move one step closer to a new trial next week. On Tuesday, Oct. 10, he'll step into Bastrop County's 21st District Court for a four-day hearing set to address an interview CNN's Death Row Stories conducted in 2016 with Curtis Davis, the Bastrop County Sheriff's investigator and former best friend of Jimmy Fennell Jr., Stites' fiancé, then a Giddings police officer, and the person Reed and his supporters believe to be responsible for her death. The interview, according to Reed's attorney Bryce Benjet, validates longstanding questions concerning whether Fennell provided false testimony at Reed's trial about his whereabouts on the night of Stites' murder.
Most relevant to Reed's effort is the portion of the interview in which Davis admits that on the morning of April 23, 1996, after Stites was reported missing, Fennell confided to Davis that he'd been out drinking by his truck the night before with several other police officers after a Little League practice. Davis said he doesn't know the exact time Fennell returned home, but told CNN: "definitely 10ish, 11 maybe at night." That unassuming nugget stands in direct contrast to Fennell's statement to police and testimony at Reed's trial: that he'd spent the night of April 22 at home with Stites, and was asleep when she allegedly left for work with his truck at 3am.
Davis' reveal is remarkable on its own, but even more striking when stacked next to affidavits filed in 2015 by Werner Spitz, Michael Baden, and LeRoy Riddick – three of the country's leading forensic experts – each of which raises questions about the time of Stites' death; essentially, that her condition when investigators found her indicates that Stites must have died at least four hours before her official time of death, 3:30am. That time played an outsized role in the state's case against Reed: Prosecutors hung their argument around the assumption that Reed abducted, raped, and murdered her on her way to work, then abandoned Fennell's truck at a nearby high school.
Fennell is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for the in-custody rape and kidnapping of a woman while he was an officer with the Georgetown Police Department in 2007.
Visiting Judge Doug Shaver will preside over the hearing, a recent development. The county docket listed that court's usual judge Carson Campbell as the hearing's judge as recently as July, but District Clerk Sarah Loucks told the Chronicle that Campbell "never was going to hear" Reed's case. It has been Shaver's case since 2014, Loucks said on Sept. 29, and she had "no idea" how it got reported that Campbell was presiding over the hearing. (We reported it in July after seeing Campbell's name listed as the presiding judge on the Bastrop County district clerk's website. See "Rodney Reed Hearing Set for October," July 14. Loucks did not respond to additional requests for clarification.)
Some might recall that Shaver has made a few headlines of his own over the years, including last September, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals instructed him to further investigate Reed's request for additional DNA testing. Once the prosecution and defense submitted their findings – in opposition to one another – Shaver approved both arguments and shipped them off to the CCA. Shortly after, Shaver wrote the court to apologize for what he called an "inadvertent mistake." Curiously, during our interview with Loucks on Friday, someone listening in on the call from Loucks' office interjected to say that Shaver's approval of both sides' findings "wasn't an accident." Asked to clarify, all that person (who declined to identify herself) could say was that Shaver "wanted the Court of Criminal Appeals to make that decision" – another odd development, since Shaver's letter to the CCA stated that he meant to approve only the prosecution's findings. The appeals court affirmed Shaver's decision to deny additional DNA testing, less than one month before mandating that the county court hold this upcoming hearing.
After that incident, Benjet told the Statesman that he planned to request a new judge preside over Reed's case. Neither Benjet nor the Bastrop County District Attorney's Office returned requests for comment concerning whether or not a new judge had indeed been requested and – if so – if that request had been denied.
Pruett's Last Stand
While Reed's hearing is going on, another longtime inmate of Texas' death row is slated for execution. Robert Pruett, convicted for the 1999 in-custody murder of Beeville prison guard Daniel Nagle, has a death date of Oct. 12. It's his fifth such date, as questions continue to come up about the murder, and whether Pruett was actually responsible.
The 38-year-old was 20 and serving a 99-year sentence for acting as an accomplice to a murder committed by his father when Nagle was found dead in the prison's multipurpose room. No officers witnessed the killing, and no inmates immediately spoke up. Investigators later found a homemade shank and a torn-up disciplinary note Nagle had issued Pruett earlier that day. They noticed a cut on Pruett's finger during their questioning of him, and splotches of blood on his shirt. Pruett denied any involvement, saying that he cut himself while lifting weights and used his shirt to wipe off the blood. Efforts to get the shank tested for DNA have been repeatedly denied at various levels – most recently on Oct. 2 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Pruett has an outstanding appeal for a stay with Houston District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos; should that be denied, he'll become the sixth Texan executed this year.
But that's just the start: With five more executions scheduled for 2017, including two more this month (Anthony Shore on Oct. 18 and Clinton Young on Oct. 26), trouble in Huntsville is only heating up.
For more news from Huntsville, see this week’s “Headlines,” Oct. 6.