Rodney Reed has spent nearly two decades on Texas’ death row for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites, which he insists he didn’t commit. Now, he may get a chance at a new trial.
A Texas court has allowed Reed and his attorneys to present their case before a judge next month. They plan to argue that a videotaped interview raises questions about the whereabouts of Stites’ then-fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, the night before her murder.
Police identified Fennell — a former police officer who is currently in prison for rape — as a suspect during their investigation into Stites’ killing, but he was never charged.
“If the facts that are alleged are proven, and in this case it’s essentially on video, then Mr. Reed is entitled to a new trial,” said Bryce Benjet, an Innocence Project attorney who is representing Reed.
Reed and his attorneys have argued that forensic evidence linking Reed to the crime was the product of a hidden relationship between Reed and Stites. During the investigation of the murder, Reed told police he had never met Stites, a statement he now says he made out of fear he’d be treated unfairly because Stites was engaged to a police officer.
Fennell testified during Reed’s 1998 trial that he and Stites were home together at the apartment they shared the night of April 22, 1996. Fennell testified that he stayed up to watch TV when Stites went to sleep around 9 p.m. When Stites left the next morning for her 3:30 a.m. shift, Fennell said he was asleep.
But in an interview with “Death Row Stories” videotaped last year, Fennell’s friend and Bastrop County Sheriff’s investigator Curtis Davis offered a different story.
Davis said that Fennell told him that he had been out drinking with some fellow officers the night of the 22nd and came home late, likely around 10 or 11 p.m. after Stites had gone to bed.
According to Davis, Fennell told him these details on April 23, 1996, as they waited for word on Stites’ whereabouts. Police were searching for Stites after she failed to show up for work and the truck she had been driving had been discovered around 5 a.m. Her body was found later that day and a coroner determined she had been raped and strangled.
“The statements that [Davis] made in the interview are the first I’ve ever heard of this account, and they’re sort of night and day from what Jimmy Fennell said had taken place,” Benjet told CNN.
After Stites’ murder, Fennell moved to Georgetown, Texas, where he joined the local police force. But he eventually landed behind bars.
In 2008, Fennell pleaded guilty to charges of kidnapping and improper sexual activity with a person in custody, after a woman he detained when responding to a domestic dispute call accused him of rape.
Fennell was sentenced to 10 years and is scheduled to be released in September 2018.
Benjet said that the inconsistencies around Fennell’s whereabouts in the hours surrounding Stites’ murder must be considered within the context of what he called “substantial forensic evidence showing that the victim was killed hours before the state believed the crime took place and that the body had been moved, all of which is inconsistent with Mr. Reed’s guilt.”
Reed’s legal team plans to submit that forensic evidence, along with the videotaped interview, at the writ of habeas corpus hearing scheduled to begin on October 10 in Bastrop County District Court. It could be the first step toward a new trial for Reed.
It’s not the first time that questions have been raised around Reed’s 1998 murder conviction: just days before he was scheduled to die, a court stayed his execution in 2015 because of new witness testimony and forensic analysis. But it wasn’t enough to earn him a new trial.
Reed’s execution date is stayed indefinitely pending the court’s ruling on the evidence.