At Reed Hearing, Fennell Breaks Silence, Says "They're All Liars"

Victim's fiancé long suspected in 1996 killing, denies all guilt

Outside the Bastrop County Justice Center, where a new hearing is underway for Rodney Reed (Photo by Brant Bingamon)

Nobody attending the Rodney Reed hearing in Bastrop expected Jimmy Fennell would actually testify. Reed, a Black man, has spent 23 years on death row for the murder of Stacey Stites, who was white. But it is Fennell who many believe is the actual killer.

Fennell was Stites' fiancé, and a local police officer, when she was found strangled beside a dirt road outside Bastrop in 1996. He spent months as the prime suspect in the case. Reed was instead convicted of the crime after his semen was found inside Stites' body; he has maintained that the two were having an affair.

This is the third time a fact-finding hearing has been conducted in the complicated case to determine if Reed should get a new trial; he was days away from execution in November 2019 before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay and sent the case back to the courtroom in Bastrop where it began.

In the years since Stites' murder, Fennell pled guilty to kidnapping and sexual assault in another case and served a decade in prison. He was expected to invoke his Fifth Amend­ment right against self-incrimination at the hearing, as he has before. So it was with some astonishment that those in the courtroom learned on the morning of July 22 that Fennell was waiving his right to have an attorney present and would answer questions.

“As far as I’m concerned, they’re all lying.” – Jimmy Fennell

Fennell sat hunched, staring down, the corners of his lips drawn down, as Reed's lead attorney Andrew MacRae interrogated him. Asked if he knew that Stites had been having an affair with Reed, Fennell said, "She was not." To the witnesses who testified that he was a racist, that his relationship with Stites was abusive, that he had threatened to kill her if he found out she was having an affair, and that he admitted killing her afterward, Fennell had a simple and uniform response: "As far as I'm concerned, they're all lying."

After a lunch break, the prosecution asked its own questions. Assistant Attorney General Travis Bragg led Fennell through the events surrounding the murder, portraying his relationship with Stites as happy and healthy. Asked how he felt when he learned Stites was dead, Fennell's face reddened and he appeared to weep. "My heart was ripped out of my chest at that moment."

Afterward, Reed's family, two dozen of whom have attended each day of the hearing, were talking about the same thing that MacRae emphasized: Fennell's facile description of all the previous testimony as lies. "It doesn't make sense that you got 20-something people, all of them liars, all of them got nothing to gain, all of them are lying," said Rodrick Reed, Rodney's brother. "He's the only person telling the truth. There's something wrong with that." Testimony has continued this week as the state reiterates its case that Rodney Reed is guilty and deserves to die. The hearing is expected to conclude this Friday, July 30.

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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, Jimmy Fennell, Stacey Stites, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Fifth Amendment, Andrew MacRae, Travis Bragg, Rodrick Reed, Texas death row, Bastrop County Jail

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