Texas state senator joins calls to stay execution for death row inmate

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Rodney Reed

Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Rodney Reed

A Texas state senator has asked the governor to stay a Nov. 20 execution, after attorneys for a condemned man on Monday filed a motion raising new potential witnesses whose accounts cast doubt on their client’s guilt.

At issue is the scheduled execution of Rodney Reed, a black man convicted of the 1996 murder of Stacey Stiles, a white woman who was engaged to a white Giddings police officer.

The new evidence cited by Reed’s attorney is only the latest evidence to be uncovered since his conviction that casts significant doubt on Reed’s guilt. Reed’s case is one of 24 cases that Injustice Watch featured in “Unrequited Innocence,” in which significant evidence of innocence was raised after defendants were sentenced to die. None of the defendants has been exonerated.

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Unrequited Innocence

Citing the “grave doubt and racial bias” that “continue to taint Reed’s conviction,” Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson sent a letter to Abbott on Wednesday asking for a stay of execution and for a review of Reed’s case by the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Texas State Sen. Kirk Watson

Office of Senator Kirk Watson

Texas State Sen. Kirk Watson

Watson, the state senator of the district in which Stites was murdered, wrote to the governor, “I rarely comment on or intervene in criminal cases.”

Watson, who was unable to comment Friday, cited “credible evidence (1) that the State’s theory of the case depended on scientifically invalid testimony that has since been recanted; (2) that an alternative suspect with a confirmed history of sexual assault, dishonesty, and violence committed the murder; and (3) that Reed’s defense is true.”

Reed, a black man, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Stites, a white woman engaged to a white police officer, Jimmy Fennell. Reed’s semen was found on Stites’s body, and though they were having an affair, he initially denied knowing her when questioned by police. A prosecutor at trial called the semen “the smoking gun” that pointed to his guilt.

For months after the murder, investigators considered Fennell the primary suspect. A decade later, he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman while he was responding to a domestic disturbance call. The victim reached a $100,000 settlement agreement with his department, and several other women came forward with similar allegations against him. Fennell served a 10-year prison sentence and was released in March 2018.

New evidence has emerged and new witnesses have come forward since Reed’s trial that contradict the State’s version of events.

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.

“We will not serve justice or increase the public’s faith in our legal institutions by taking the irrevocable step of executing Reed when significant and credible evidence pointing to his innocence has not undergone a thorough, unbiased review,” Watson wrote.

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. Texas State Representative Vikki Goodwin asked Abbott to grant Reed clemency at a “Free Rodney Reed” protest earlier this month.

Reed’s attorneys asked for a reprieve in a letter of their own to Abbott on Monday, presenting three new witnesses with incriminating testimony against Fennell.

A former sheriff’s deputy, Jim Clampit, now says that he saw Fennell looking over Stites’s body at her funeral and whispering something along the lines of, “You got what you deserved.”

“The more I thought about it, the more I knew I would not be able to live with myself if I did not come forward,” Clampit said, according to Reed’s attorneys.

Charles Wayne Fletcher, who worked with Fennell at the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office, says that in March 1996, Fennell told him he believed Stites was having sex with a black man, though Fennell used strong language including a racial slur.

Fletcher, like Clampit, noticed Fennell’s “odd, emotionless behavior” at Stites’ funeral.

“I was so disturbed by his behavior that it caused me to question whether he was involved in Stacey’s death. I also chose to have no further interaction or communication with him,” Fletcher said, according to the attorneys’ letter

A third witness, unnamed in the letter, was an insurance saleswoman who discussed life insurance with Fennell and Stites in November 1995. After Stites wondered whether she needed life insurance at such a young age, the saleswoman remembered Fennell saying, “If I ever catch you messing around on me, I will kill you and no one will ever know it was me that killed you.”

Reed’s attorneys have not received any official response from the governor’s office as of Friday morning, Benjet said.

“Obviously the governor takes this very seriously and we fully expect that the governor and the Board of Pardons and Paroles are going to dig into this,” Benjet said.

Governor Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.