Texas appeals court halts Rodney Reeds execution

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UPDATE: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has halted death row inmate Rodney Reed’s execution. Reed was scheduled to be executed Wednesday despite significant evidence of his innocence.

Reed’s appeal was sent back to trial court for a judge to rule on several issues related to his conviction, including potentially false testimony by prosecutors, and whether the state withheld evidence that would have cleared his name.

The appellate decision followed a unanimous vote earlier Friday by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend giving Reed a 120-day reprieve. The appeals court decision effectively grants the reprieve, since the issue will likely take more than 120 days for the lower court to resolve.

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Unrequited Innocence

The U.S. Supreme Court is also weighing whether to intervene in the case, which justices discussed Friday. The court could decide whether to hear the case as early as Monday. But as of Friday afternoon, Reed’s attorney Bryce Benjet said that he was unaware of a decision.

Rodney Reed

Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Rodney Reed

Reed was sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites, with whom he was having an affair. Reed initially denied to police that he knew Stites. The prosecutor at his murder trial called his semen, recovered from her body, “the smoking gun” that pointed to his guilt.

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Rodney Reed: Slated to die next month, though experts call prosecution theory “impossible”

Eighteen days before Stacey Lee Stites was supposed to be married to a rookie police officer, her body was found in April, 1996 by a passerby in the brush on the side of a road in a rural county not far from Austin.

Stites’ fiancé Jimmy Fennell said he last saw her when she went to bed the evening before the murder. He said he first learned the next morning that she had not arrived at 3:30 a.m. for her shift at a grocery store. Medical examiners placed the time of her death between 3 and 5 a.m., and prosecutors concluded that Reed had raped her shortly before.

Since the trial, new witnesses and forensic evidence have pointed to Reed’s innocence and implicate Fennell, who was the primary suspect in the initial months of the investigation. In 2008, Fennell, a police sergeant, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a young woman while he was responding to a domestic disturbance. He served 10 years in prison and the victim settled a lawsuit with his department for $100,000.

In post-conviction proceedings, forensic experts called the prosecution’s theory at trial “medically and scientifically impossible.” Based on the semen evidence, they concluded that Stites had been murdered before midnight, a time when Fennell testified he was with her.

Witnesses have come forward describing violent and racist sentiments by Fennell, and recalling that he suspected Stites was sleeping with a black man. Notably, Arthur Snow, an inmate who was serving time in the same facility as Fennell, said in late October that Fennell confessed to him in late 2010 or early 2011, “I had to kill my [expletive]-loving fiance,” using a racial slur.