Texas lawmen join chorus citing doubts of Rodney Reed’s guilt

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Thirteen Texas law enforcement officers joined a growing call to halt the scheduled execution November 20 of Rodney Reed, noting “serious doubts” about his guilt in a 1996 murder.

The officers jointly filed a 26-page friend of the court brief which states, “Mr. Reed’s conviction lacks” the “heightened level of reliability” demanded in capital trials.

At issue is Reed’s conviction for the murder of Stacey Stites, though significant evidence of his innocence has emerged since his trial. His case is one of 24 featured in Injustice Watch’s Unrequited Innocence series on people sentenced to death but not exonerated despite compelling evidence of innocence.

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Amicus briefs are legal documents filed in appellate cases by outside parties with a strong interest in the subject. In death penalty cases, amicus briefs are often filed to draw political and public attention to cases in which doubt remains or legal breaches have occurred.

Rodney Reed

Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Rodney Reed

Williamson County deputy constable Deke Pierce, along with 12 other Texas law enforcement officers, filed a 26-page brief Monday highlighting the “serious doubts of Mr. Reed’s guilt.” The officers cited the “heightened level of reliability” demanded in capital trials and stated, “Mr. Reed’s conviction lacks that necessary reliability.”

Given the collective weight of new evidence in addition to the established set of facts about Stites’s murder, “Amici respectfully urge the Court to ensure that Mr. Reed’s case gets a thorough second look before he is executed,” the officers wrote.

The officers highlight Reed’s claims of innocence as well as evidence of guilt of Stites’s fiance Jimmy Fennell, initially the prime suspect in her murder.

Reed, a black man who was having an affair with Stites, who was white, initially lied to police about knowing her, despite the fact that his semen was found on her body. The semen was “the smoking gun” that pointed to his guilt, one prosecutor said at his trial.

However, the State’s version of events has been called into question.

At trial, the state posited that Reed sexually assaulted and strangled Stites within a two-hour window without leaving any DNA, hair or fingerprints in the car she had been driving. Forensic experts whose testimony about Reed’s semen implicated him in the crime have since recanted the timeline they presented. And several independent forensic experts have ruled out the state’s theory of when and where Stites was killed, contending she was “likely killed hours earlier, when she was alone in her apartment with Fennell,” rather than hours later in her car, Reed’s attorneys Bryce Benjet and Andrew MacRae wrote.

Fennell, a police officer, pleaded guilty a decade after Stites’s murder to the sexual assault of a young woman while responding to a domestic disturbance call. The victim won a $100,000 settlement and several other women came forward with similar claims. Fennell served a 10-year sentence and was released in March 2018.

New witnesses have come forward alleging that Fennell knew about the affair, boasted that he could get away with murdering her, and behaved oddly at her funeral, muttering something akin to, “You got what you deserved,” to Stites’s body, according to one witness.

In their amicus brief, the law enforcement officers – who combined have more than 250 years of experience – warned of the risk of tunnel vision by those investigating Stites’s murder.

“In particular, the pre-trial investigation shows that police did not believe the forensic evidence exonerated Mr. Fennell until after Mr. Reed became a suspect,” they wrote. Until then, investigators subjected Fennell to “aggressive interrogations and polygraph tests which led him to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.”

A second friend of the court brief was also filed Monday by the Constitution Project, a nonprofit that seeks to “forge consensus-based solutions to some of the most difficult constitutional questions of the day,” according to its website.

The nonprofit, which includes as board members several former attorneys general and former FBI director William S. Sessions, objected via the constitutional issues manifested in Reed’s case. Brady v. Maryland, a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision, requires prosecutors to turn over all exculpatory evidence to the defendant. The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment requires that a defendant have the right to cross-examine witnesses.

Reed was not made aware of a statement by Fennell, before Stites’s body was discovered but after she was reported missing, that he had been out late drinking with other police the night of her disappearance. This statement contradicted his trial testimony that he was home with Stites until she left for work around 3 a.m., testimony that established the State’s entire timeline about Stites’s murder.

Lacking this evidence, Reed was denied the opportunity to impeach Fennell’s credibility and undermine the entire case against him, the Constitution Project brief authored by former federal prosecutor Justin S. Weddle states.

“Rodney Reed faces death without being afforded the fair process that undergirds both the Brady rule and the Confrontation Clause,” the brief wrote. The nonprofit argued that Reed’s conviction should be vacated so that he can receive a trial free of Brady and Confrontation Clause violations.

The two groups join a growing number of supporters who believe Reed is innocent or at least that his upcoming execution should be halted in favor of further scrutiny.

Reed’s attorneys have sought a review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court. Texas State Sen. Kirk Watson, who represents the district in which Stites was murdered, and State Representative Vikki Goodwin have both asked Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to stay the execution. Celebrities including Dr. Phil, Kim Kardashian West, Mark Cuban, Susan Sarandon and Sister Helen Prejean have spoken out in support of Reed in recent weeks.

Protests and gatherings in support of Reed were also planned for this week.

“Whether you’re Kim Kardashian or you’re the guy next door, you’re not going to want the state of Texas executing someone who didn’t do it,” Reed attorney Benjet said.