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

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This story is the second in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.

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.

She was 19. An autopsy determined she had been strangled with a belt she wore, and that fresh sperm was in her underwear and on her body.

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Unrequited Innocence

Stites and her fiancé lived in an apartment above her mother in Giddings, Texas. Jimmy Lewis Fennell Jr., 23, told investigators that he and Stites had showered together on the evening she died, but had not had sex because, although she was on birth control, there was an elevated risk of pregnancy at that point in her prescription cycle.

Stites, who was supposed to arrive at work at a grocery store at 3:30 a.m., had gone to bed while Fennell stayed up, he said.

The next morning, he was awakened by Stites’ mother who said she had not shown up for work.

Fennell’s truck, which Fennell said Stites had driven to work that morning, was found in the Bastrop High School parking lot by a passing sheriff’s officer. Her body was found shortly before 3 p.m. by a passerby.

DNA testing eliminated Fennell as the source of the recovered sperm and of saliva on her breasts, leading authorities to believe she had been sexually assaulted. Further testing eliminated 27 other suspects, including co-workers, friends and former boyfriends.

Investigators focused on Rodney Reed, who had frequently been seen walking late at night near the high school in the months after the murder and who lived about a half-mile away. When authorities discovered that his DNA put him among a tiny fraction of men who could have been the source of the semen and saliva, investigators brought in Reed for questioning.

Rodney Reed

Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Rodney Reed

Not aware of the DNA match, Reed falsely denied knowing Stites.

Reed, then 29, was charged with capital murder. His defense — that he, a black man, had been having an affair with the white fiancée of a white policeman — was deemed “explosive” by the Austin American-Statesman.

Reed testified that he and Stites had begun an affair in November 1995 and that they last had sex on April 21, 1996, or “very early” the next morning.

The medical examiner who performed her autopsy estimated her time of death at 3 a.m. on April 23, and told the jury that the sperm had been deposited shortly before she died. A serologist testified that sperm can remain intact for no more than 24 hours.

In a closing statement, prosecutor Lisa Tanner told the jury that the semen was “the smoking gun” – “equivalent to the slipper in the Cinderella story.” The jury agreed, voting to convict Reed and recommending a death sentence, which the judge imposed.

A decade later, Jimmy Fennell pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, having sex with a person in custody and official oppression. His victim was Connie Iris Lear, 20 years old when he attacked her. Her case prompted several other women to come forward with similar allegations.

Lear filed a civil suit against Fennell and the police department, which was settled for $100,000 in 2009. The developments raised “a healthy suspicion that Fennell had some involvement” in his fiancée’s murder, as the Austin Chronicle put it. In 2012, the medical examiner from Reed’s trial backed off his initial time-of-death estimate, saying the estimate of when Stites died should not have been “used at trial as an accurate statement.”

In February 2015, with Reed’s execution set for two weeks away, he filed a petition arguing that the prosecution’s theory at trial was “medically and scientifically impossible,” and that he was innocent. The petition cited three of the nation’s leading forensic pathologists who concluded from photographs and video of Stites’s body that she had been slain hours earlier than 3 a.m, a time on which the prosecution theory was based. The petition also included a statement from one of her co-workers who said she told him “she was sleeping with a black guy named Rodney and that she didn’t know what her fiancé would do if he found out.”

An appellate court stayed Reed’s execution in response, and had a hearing on Reed’s claim of innocence in 2017. A close friend of Fennell’s testified to incriminating statements he said Stites’ fiancé had made to him, and Fennell declined to answer questions, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.

Nevertheless the courts refused to overturn the conviction or, more recently, to approve extensive DNA testing. Reed’s execution date has been set for November 20.