The Austin Chronicle

Rodney Reed Gets Execution Stay, New Hearing

New witnesses, debunked forensic evidence, and DNA testing to be considered in 2020

By Brant Bingamon, November 22, 2019, News

On Nov. 15, days before Rodney Reed was to be put to death, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stopped his execution, handing his attorneys a big win and triggering jubilation from family and supporters. The decision came shortly after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously recommended to Gov. Greg Abbott that he delay the execution. Reed's attorney Andrew MacRae wept at the news from the parole board and was moved again when he learned of the CCA's action. "Friday was a day of cascading emotion," he said.

The events capped weeks of mounting interest in Reed's case from celebrities, lawmakers, religious groups, and millions online. Many asked that his sentence be thrown out, but the CCA instead ordered a hearing to be held in the Bastrop courtroom where Reed was originally tried; it will likely get underway by the spring of 2020. A judge will look at Reed's claims that he is innocent and that prosecutors both suppressed exculpatory evidence and presented false testimony. The judge will then recommend for or against a new trial. (Senior Judge Doug Shaver, who has presided over actions in Reed's case since 2014, has made known his intentions to retire for good and step aside from the case; a replacement has not been named.)

Reed, an African American man, was sentenced to death in 1998 by an all-white jury for the rape and strangulation of 19-year-old Stacey Stites. He was convicted after his semen was found in Stites' body, but claimed the two had been having an affair. Many have speculated that Stites' fiancé, police officer Jimmy Fennell, was her actual killer.

A retrial has long been the goal of MacRae and Bryce Benjet of the Innocence Project, who filed motions in multiple courts in recent weeks before the stay, presenting testimony from eight new witnesses. Taken as a whole, the new testimony supports Reed's contention that he and Stites were having an affair and casts Fennell, who later served 10 years for kidnapping and raping a woman in his custody while on duty, as racist and dangerous. One of the witnesses, Aryan Brotherhood gang leader Arthur Snow Jr., says Fennell confessed to Stites' murder to him when both were in jail.

MacRae notes that three of the new witnesses were police officers at the time of Reed's trial and were bound by oath to report what they knew about Fennell to prosecutors, who should have then turned the information over to the defense. "So much of it had to do with Mr. Fen­nell that it would have changed the cross-examination of Mr. Fennell dramatically," MacRae said, "and might have even caused him not to testify at all."

The upcoming hearing will also look at the forensic evidence the state presented in the original trial, testimony crucial to the conviction that his attorneys say has since been debunked. The CCA's ruling was sufficiently broad that it will allow Reed's team to present all the arguments they've gathered in the last five years, Benjet said. It is still unknown whether Reed's attorneys will succeed in getting the belt used to murder Stites tested for DNA. They filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in August over various courts' refusal to allow the test; a ruling may come down in time for the hearing. MacRae has said that he and Benjet may subpoena Fennell. He does not rule out the introduction of more new witnesses.

With the execution halted for now, Reed's family can take a minute to catch their breath. Reed's mother, Sandra, and brother, Rodrick, worked tirelessly in recent weeks, organizing rallies of supporters and speaking to news organizations on a daily basis. Like Benjet and MacRae, their goal has always been a retrial. "If he gets a fair trial, he'll be home with us," Sandra Reed told reporters.

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