As Millions Demand Justice, Texas Prepares to Take Rodney Reed's Life
Looking back at a long road of injustice for the death row inmate
"I don't think I would have ever imagined using the phrase, 'I just got off the phone with Kim Kardashian,'" said Bryce Benjet, lead attorney for Rodney Reed, scheduled to be executed on Nov. 20. "But those words have passed my lips in the last week or so."
Benjet has been trying to save Rodney Reed's life for the past 18 years. He leads the Innocence Project, an organization that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted. Reed was sentenced to death in 1998 for the rape and murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop in a case tainted by racism, investigative bungling, and police intimidation. Many have long believed Reed is innocent and, thanks to the efforts of Benjet and Reed's family, others throughout the nation – and even the world – are coming to the same conclusion.
On Nov. 4, Shaun King, calling Reed's case "the real life To Kill a Mockingbird," announced an online petition to halt the execution. It has now been signed by about 3 million people from all 50 states and 100 countries. Oprah Winfrey referenced those numbers when she appeared on CBS This Morning days later. "Governor, if you're watching, hello," Winfrey said. "Something's off here. Something needs to be done."
The surge of interest in Reed's case is at least partly related to Kim Kardashian West, who introduced Reed's story to her 63 million Twitter followers on Oct. 19, tweeting to Gov. Greg Abbott, "I urge you to do the right thing." Soon, more celebrities offered support, including Beyoncé, Rihanna, Questlove, Meek Mill, Mark Cuban, and LL Cool J.
With these developments swirling around them, Benjet and his team have found new evidence and filed new legal motions on a weekly basis. Just days ago, on Nov. 12, they asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to halt the execution to examine testimony from four new witnesses. One of the four backs up Reed's contention that he was having an affair with Stites at the time of the murder. The other three describe Jimmy Fennell, Stites' fiancé and the original suspect in the case, as abusive and confrontational. These are in addition to other new testimony found by Benjet in recent weeks, the most striking of which describes a decade-old confession by Fennell. In 2010, while serving time for the kidnapping and rape of a woman in his custody as a Georgetown police officer, Fennell sought assistance from fellow prisoner Arthur Snow, a high-ranking member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Snow says Fennell told him Stites had been having an affair with a black man and bragged, "I had to kill my n----r-loving fiancée" – testimony included in a clemency petition Reed's team submitted on Oct. 30.
Even with the outpouring of attention to Reed's case and the new evidence uncovered, Benjet is worried. "Having worked on death penalty cases my entire career, I have not seen a case with this sort of comprehensive showing of innocence get this close to an execution before," he said.
Stacey and Jimmy
On April 22, 1996, Stacey Stites got off work at the Bastrop H-E-B and joined her mother Carol at her apartment in Giddings. Stacey was a beautiful and confident 19-year-old and, in her mother's opinion, very much in love with her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell. Fennell was a rookie patrolman hired straight out of the academy by the Giddings Police Department. The couple's wedding was in three weeks.
Fennell arrived and the three ate meatloaf sandwiches and discussed the next day's task – choosing flowers for the wedding. Stacey had moved from cashier to produce stocker for extra money for such expenses. "Stacey worked her little rear-end off trying to make enough money to get married," Carol Stites said. "Fifty cents an hour more so that she could pay off her wedding dress and her jewelry." Stocking produce meant Stacey had to wake in the dead of night and drive 30 miles through the Lost Pines of Bastrop County to make her 3:30am shift.
Around dusk, Carol saw her daughter alive for the last time, giggling as Fennell chased her up the stairs to their apartment above Carol's. Fennell, in one of the two accounts he later gave of the evening, said he and Stites spent a quiet evening at home. He didn't wake when she rose at 2:45am, borrowing his red Chevy truck for the drive to work.
Carol's phone rang that morning at 6am. It was a co-worker asking if Stacey had overslept. Carol called up to Fennell. He ran down, grabbed the keys to her car, and raced to Bastrop. Carol dialed 911.
By 9am, police were examining the red Chevy truck sitting alone in the Bastrop High School parking lot. It had been spotted around 5am by a patrolman who had noticed nothing amiss and continued his rounds. Now, officers realized it belonged to Fennell. They had it towed to a local shop. Fennell arrived and saw things that didn't look right. One of Stacey's tennis shoes lay on the floorboard, and so did one of her earrings. There was a foamy substance on the transmission hump. The truck was taken to Austin to be examined by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
At 3pm, Stacey was found in a ditch along a gravel road outside of town. She lay on her back with her arms thrown behind her head. She wore a black bra and blue pants with a broken zipper, her H-E-B name tag – "Stacey" – in the crook of her knee. A fragment of a braided leather belt lay nearby. According to a DPS investigator, the weaving of the belt matched a pattern on Stites' neck, "like an indentation but red, like it had cut into her skin." Stites' body showed purplish patches – like bruises – on the face, arm, and shoulder.
At her funeral, Stacey was buried in the wedding dress she'd worked to pay off. Suspicion fell on her fiancé, the young Giddings police officer Jimmy Fennell.
The day after she was found, Dr. Roberto Bayardo, Travis County's medical examiner, autopsied Stites' body. Her death had occurred around 3am, he concluded; she'd been strangled with the belt. Bayardo found semen in Stites' vagina. He decided it had been left at the time of the murder. DPS processed Fennell's truck and found nothing helpful, no prints, no hairs. Within the week, they returned it, and Fennell immediately traded it in.
Fennell's DNA didn't match that found in Stites' body, but he was the main suspect. Investigators grilled him repeatedly and administered two polygraph examinations, both of which he flunked on the question, "Did you strangle Stacey?" They gave up trying to explain how, if Fennell had killed Stites by 5am and abandoned his truck 30 miles from home, he could have made it back to his apartment by 6am.
Though investigators focused intently on Fennell, the apartment he had shared with Stacey – the last place she'd been seen alive – was somehow never searched.
Meanwhile, Bastrop police officers on the graveyard shift noticed the same person, Rodney Reed, walking late night after night. Reed, a 30-year-old former Golden Gloves boxer, lived with his parents and siblings on the other side of the tracks in Bastrop's African American community. On a hunch, the officers contacted DPS to see if they had a DNA sample from Reed. They did. It was from a woman who had accused him of sexual assault months earlier. They tested it and got a match to the semen found in Stites' body.
When brought in for questioning, Reed told investigators, "I don't know Stacey Stites, never seen her other than what was on the news." He calls that statement the biggest regret of his life.
In 1997, Reed was charged with the kind of crime that, earlier in the century, would likely have ended his life before ever reaching a courtroom: the rape and murder of a white woman. As it was, a "jury of his peers" in Bastrop County meant Reed faced an all-white jury.
Absolutely nothing connected him to Stites – except the DNA. There was no other physical evidence, no witnesses. The prosecution had the timeline, the location of the body, and Rodney Reed's semen. They filled in the details with the only story that fit: As Stites drove to work on the morning of her death, Reed, on foot and with no weapon, gained entry to the vehicle. He raped and strangled Stites, dumped her body, and abandoned the truck. Although it had been a sloppy, reckless crime, he left no fingerprints.
Reed received two court-appointed attorneys; they were given little time to prepare and the trial began. Day after day in a packed courtroom in May of 1998, they presented a two-pronged argument: that someone else, probably Fennell, had killed Stites and that a secret sexual relationship between her and Reed explained the semen in her body.
The defense found people who knew about the affair. But these were friends and family of Reed; some had criminal records, and they were hesitant to testify. "People were afraid to come forward," the defense's investigator, Duane Olney, said. "They were afraid of the police there." Only two witnesses appeared for the defense, and one of them buckled during cross-examination. "I think she was trying to give us something and trying to protect herself at the same time," defense attorney Lydia Clay-Jackson said.
The state prosecutors called Bayardo and two other forensic experts to declare that the semen in Stites' body was put there at the time of the murder. They presented the jury with photos of Stites' body at autopsy, including an 18-by-11-inch enlargement of her anus. They described the DNA as the case's "Cinderella's slipper," saying it overwhelmed any other evidence. They ridiculed the notion of an affair. "Folks, this secret affair was so secret that Stacey Stites didn't even know about it," prosecutor Lisa Tanner told the jury.
On May 18, the jury, after weeks of shocking testimony, pronounced Reed guilty. Prosecutors went for the death penalty, putting five witnesses on the stand who testified that they'd been sexually assaulted by Reed. The allegations went back to 1986 and included the case that had provided the DNA connecting Reed to Stites. Though only one of the cases had made it to trial and Reed had been acquitted, the lurid descriptions and sobbing witnesses had their effect. In a packed, silent courthouse, Reed was sentenced to death.
Rodney Reed has been appealing that verdict and sentence for more than 20 years. For much of that time, he's had the resources on his side to do so, thanks to Texas Defender Services and the Innocence Project. With the many issues arising from the investigation and trial, the result has been several novels' worth of legal filings.
These filings have included new witnesses testifying to the affair between Reed and Stites and to Jimmy Fennell's inappropriate conduct with women; claims that Reed's trial attorneys didn't effectively assist him and that the prosecution withheld evidence; testimony challenging the state's forensic conclusions and its handling of evidence; and much else. None of the arguments got their desired result: a retrial. By 2009, Reed's attorneys had spent thousands of hours compiling evidence and arguing his case, and had been rejected all down the line.
Benjet responded by putting together a 158-page brief and submitting it in federal district court. The brief included explosive new evidence on Jimmy Fennell. After Stites' murder, Fennell had moved on to a job as a patrolman in Georgetown. There had been allegations since his Giddings days that Fennell was a corrupt, reckless cop who harassed and abused women. In 2007, the allegations were confirmed.
Fennell and fellow Georgetown police officers had responded to a complaint of a couple fighting in the parking lot of an apartment complex. Officers took the boyfriend to jail; Fennell drove the woman, Connie Lear, to a nearby park. They got out and he asked Lear to dance for him. "And when I told him no, he got mad, and he grabbed me and slammed me against the back of his car," she later told reporters. "Then he took his gun ... [and] laid it on the trunk against my head. And he raped me." Afterward, Fennell gave her his business card and said he wanted to see her again the next day, after his kid's soccer game. He also warned her that if she ever told anyone, he would hunt her down and kill her.
Fennell was charged with kidnapping and rape; he cut a plea deal for inappropriate sexual conduct and got 10 years. Other women came forward with similar stories, including another allegation of rape.
Reed's attorneys argued that Fennell's conviction showed he was capable of Stites' murder. A judge assigned to look over the brief agreed that Fennell had engaged in "despicable and reprehensible conduct" but said that didn't exonerate Reed. He methodically rejected the evidence of an affair between Reed and Stites and, like the prosecutors at trial, said the only evidence that mattered was Reed's semen in Stites' body.
In 2014, the state's highest criminal court agreed, clearing the way for Reed's execution. It was set for March 5, 2015.
Forensics, New Witnesses, a Stay
Benjet was baffled by the courts' rejection. "We really just decided we need to take a ground-up re-evaluation of this thing," he said. "You know, what did we miss over the years? And we also had the coincidental benefit of having a retired homicide detective named Kevin Gannon, who was doing an evaluation of the case for a TV show."
Benjet had not been happy to hear that Gannon was looking into his client's case. But the detective found something important: "[Gannon] called me up one afternoon and lays out how he sees this 'lividity' that lays on top of the body, and other decompositional changes, that shows Stacey was murdered hours before the state said she was."
The "lividity" Benjet refers to is a process that occurs in a body after the heart stops beating. Blood is pulled down by gravity and pools near the surface of the skin, making purplish splotches that resemble bruises. In the crime scene photos, these discolorations are visible on Stites' face, arm, and shoulder.
Benjet took Gannon's theory to three of the top forensic experts in the nation; they agreed that the lividity on top of Stites' body meant she had lain face down for four to six hours before being dumped in the ditch. They also identified the foamy substance on the transmission hump of Fennell's truck as "purge fluid," something produced when a body sits for hours after death.
This new information put Stites' death at around 11pm, when she was, according to Fennell's testimony, asleep in his bed. It also meant Reed could not have killed Stites in the two-hour window between 3am and 5am, as prosecutors insisted. It appeared to destroy their case.
Benjet also found three new witnesses who knew about the affair and had no personal motive to help Reed. Alicia Slater, who'd worked with Stites at the H-E-B, said that Stites had confided that she "was not excited about getting married" because she "was sleeping with a black guy named Rodney and ... didn't know what her fiancé would do if he found out." Leroy Ybarra had also worked with Stites at the H-E-B and had seen her and Reed flirting there. Calvin "Buddy" Horton, a cousin of Stites, had seen them at a Dairy Queen.
With 10 days to go before Reed's execution, his lawyers asked the Court of Criminal Appeals for a delay to look at the new evidence. This time, the delay was granted – a judge in Bastrop would conduct a hearing, consider the new evidence, and make a recommendation as to whether a new trial was in order.
The October 2017 Hearing
The hearing was held in October of 2017. Reed's family believed his exoneration was near. "We've been fighting for justice for a long time, and I feel like justice has prevailed today," Reed's mother Sandra told reporters at the end of four days of testimony. But the hearing wasn't the turning point for which she and her family had hoped.
A forensic expert offered testimony on the lividity that substantiated an earlier time of Stites' death. Fennell's onetime best friend Curtis Davis said Fennell gave him a different account of his whereabouts on the night of the murder than he testified to at trial. The witnesses to the affair – Slater, Ybarra, and Horton – reiterated their accounts.
But the state's attorney said that Davis' testimony didn't amount to much, and he didn't address the new evidence or witnesses at all. In January of 2018, the judge recommended against a new trial, and this summer, the CCA rubber-stamped that recommendation, again ignoring the testimony on Stites' time of death and the evidence of an affair.
"In June, we get this six-page opinion which has literally two sentences of factual discussion," Benjet said. "It is just – there's nothing there. So for that to be the culmination of four years of litigation, briefings, evidentiary hearings – and you get six pages, [and] all but two sentences are boilerplate?"
Reed's execution was set again, this time for Nov. 20, 2019.
As Reed gets closer to death, Benjet and his team are finding new witnesses with testimony implicating Fennell. The first – who has asked to remain anonymous – tells of signing Stites up for life insurance in the weeks before her killing. As Fennell stood beside them, Stites wondered aloud why she should get life insurance because she was so young. The affidavit reads, "In response to that comment, Jim, in my presence, told her, 'If I ever catch you messing around on me, I will kill you and no one will ever know it was me that killed you.' I remember it well because of the tone of voice that he used. It was not presented as a joke."
The second new witness is Jim Clampit, a former Giddings police officer who served with Fennell and attended Stites' funeral. He speaks of gazing down into her coffin as Fennell stands near. "At that moment," says Clampit, "Jimmy said something that I will never forget. Jimmy said something along the lines of, 'You got what you deserved.'"
Another police officer who served with Fennell, Charles Wayne Fletcher, is the third new witness. He attended a barbecue with Fennell and Stites just before she was killed. "I remember clearly that Jimmy said that he believed Stacey was 'fucking a n----r,'" Fletcher says. "I remember he said those words because I was disturbed by them."
In the midst of these revelations, Reed's story was featured on Dr. Phil McGraw's TV show. McGraw made the case for Reed's innocence and visited him on death row. Soon after, Kardashian West sent her first tweets. Suddenly, efforts to stop the execution gained momentum and found a new focus: Gov. Greg Abbott. All eyes are now on the staunchly conservative governor, who has stayed one execution during his term but allowed 47 to proceed.
Benjet's team has swung its attention to the governor as well. They filed an application on Oct. 30 with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that asked Abbott to grant Reed clemency and look at the new evidence coming in. The testimony of yet another new witness, Fennell's fellow inmate Arthur Snow Jr., was the centerpiece of that petition.
Snow says that Fennell approached him in 2010 at the Stevenson Unit in Cuero, wanting the protection of the Aryan Brotherhood, and they cut a deal. He recounts a conversation as the two walked the track at the Stevenson rec yard. "He was talking about his ex-fiancée with a lot of hatred and resentment," Snow says. "Jimmy said his fiancée had been sleeping around with a black man behind his back." Fennell then confessed to Stites' killing, Snow says, and Snow's impression was that "Jimmy felt safe, even proud, sharing this information with me because I was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood."
On Nov. 13, with Reed's execution just a week away, Benjet's team found four more witnesses and filed yet another legal motion asking the CCA to examine the testimony. Richard Derleth, a deputy in the Bastrop County Sheriff's Office, testified that co-workers of Stites at the Bastrop H-E-B would warn her when Fennell visited so she could hide from him. One of those co-workers, Rebecca Peoples, said Stites confided she was having an affair with an unnamed black man and was afraid of Fennell. A married couple, Brent and Vicki Sappington, testified that Brent's father, who lived directly below Fennell and Stites, heard "loud noises and thumping sounds at all times of the night from arguments above him." The elder Sappington was convinced Fennell was physically abusive and told police so after the murder, but his information was dismissed.
These new revelations have added to the frenetic air surrounding Reed's case since the beginning of November. Appeals on his behalf have flooded in from different corners of society – celebrities, law enforcement, defense attorneys, religious leaders, and, notably, Republican officeholders. On Nov. 5, 26 members of the Texas House of Representatives – half of them Republicans – sent Abbott a plea asking for a delay in the execution. The next morning, 16 members of the state Senate – a majority of that chamber, and again, half of them Republicans – did the same. Later that afternoon, the Republican party of Polk County, home to death row in one of the most conservative areas in Texas, asked the governor to grant Reed clemency. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz called for a pause: "If he's guilty, the sentence should be carried out. But if he's innocent, he should be freed," Cruz tweeted.
Even with cover from fellow Republicans, Abbott has a delicate decision to make. Before becoming governor, Abbott was the state's pro-death penalty attorney general whose team of lawyers argued for the executions of dozens of men – most with problematic trials and appeals. But if he allows the execution of Rodney Reed, many will believe that, for the sake of his political career, Abbott knowingly sent an innocent man to his death.
With 18 years of his life invested in fighting for Rodney Reed, Benjet doesn't want to address the possibility that Reed may ultimately be executed. "Obviously, you can't get up in the morning and think about that," he said. "What I can tell you is that our work at the Innocence Project and my work on this case is about getting to the truth. And whether the state proceeds with this execution or not, we're going to continue looking at this case."
Tune in to The Austin Chronicle Show on KOOP 91.7FM Friday, Nov. 15, at 3pm to hear the Chronicle news staff discuss the latest developments in the Rodney Reed case.