Texas’ highest criminal court emphatically rejects death row inmate Rodney Reed’s claim of innocence

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Rodney Reed a chance for a new trial Wednesday, nearly four years after halting his execution and ordering the trial court to weigh whether Reed might be innocent in the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites.

In a 129-page ruling, Texas’ highest criminal court delivered a crushing blow to Reed, who has been on Texas’ death row for more than a quarter-century. The 55-year-old’s case gained international attention as his execution neared in 2019, with a new swell of supporters doubting his guilt in 19-year-old Stites’ murder and calling for his life to be spared.

"Even if all of Reed’s post-trial evidence is taken into account, Reed still has not demonstrated that he is more-likely-than-not innocent of Stacey’s murder," wrote Judge Jesse McClure in the 7-1 ruling.

Judge Scott Walker was the lone dissenter on the all-Republican court.

In rejecting Reed’s claims of innocence, the high court accepted the 2021 recommendation of retired state District Judge J.D. Langley. Jane Pucher, one of Reed’s attorneys with The Innocence Project, condemned the ruling in a statement Wednesday and said they "will continue to fight for Mr. Reed’s freedom and bring him home to his family."

Despite the ruling, Reed likely won’t face an immediate execution date. The U.S. Supreme Court in April sided with Reed in another appeal, opening the door for him to pursue DNA testing on evidence used to convict him.

Reed has long proclaimed his innocence, and his supporters hoped he would get a new trial after the Court of Criminal Appeals stopped his execution in 2019. His lawyers over the years have brought forward a mountain of new evidence and witnesses who they say show Reed’s innocence and instead casts suspicion on Stites’ fiance, Jimmy Fennell.

Both men have been accused of multiple sexual assaults. Reed was indicted, but never convicted, in several other rape cases. Fennell spent 10 years in prison after he kidnapped and allegedly raped a woman while on duty as a police officer in 2007.

In 1996, Stites’ body was found partially unclothed in Bastrop County hours after she didn’t show up to her grocery store job, according to court records. Fennell’s truck was found abandoned in a nearby school parking lot. Pieces of Stites’ belt, which is believed to have been used to strangle her, were found at both locations.

Fennell was originally a suspect, but the prosecution turned to Reed about a year later when it found sperm cells that matched him inside her body. The state said this proved Reed raped and killed Stites. Reed said his sperm was present because he and Stites had a consensual affair, a claim his lawyers say was doubted largely because he was a Black man in rural Texas and Stites was white. Reed was tried by an all-white jury.

In recent years, Reed’s attorneys have presented witnesses who corroborate that he had a relationship with Stites and others who said Fennell was abusive toward Stites or that he suspected she was having an affair with a Black man. Reed’s legal team also brought forward pathologists who said Stites was likely killed before the time Fennell told police she left their home for work, when she was alone with him. And the medical examiner who originally pegged her death to a later time — likely when she was driving to work — clarified in an affidavit that it would be impossible to pinpoint the exact time.

Bastrop County prosecutors and Stites’ family have strongly denied these claims, brushing off the credibility of witnesses they say waited years to come forward. They remain certain Reed is guilty, declaring him a serial rapist who stopped Stites on her way to work, raped her and then killed her.

After a 10-day hearing in fall 2021, Langley found Reed’s new evidence pointing suspicion on Fennell not credible and sided with the state’s position that Reed should remain convicted and under sentence of death for Stites’ murder.

In its extensive ruling, the Court of Criminal Appeals went through each aspect of evidence raised by Reed and the state over the decades of litigation, picking apart the credibility of evidence that could point to a consensual relationship between Stites and Reed to testimony that implicated Fennell as her killer.

Ultimately, the court decided Reed’s new evidence was not enough to achieve what McClure called "the Herculean task of demonstrating actual innocence."

"We do not dispute that Reed would have been in a better position at trial if he had had the above-catalogued witnesses at his disposal," the judge wrote. "However, ‘better position at trial’ is a far cry from ‘by a preponderance of the evidence, no rational juror could have convicted.’"

Reed had also argued the state withheld evidence from the defense before trial, including statements from law enforcement officials that pointed suspicion at Fennell. The court also doubted the truth behind those statements, and said Reed didn’t meet the necessary burden to show they were suppressed by prosecutors. Pucher condemned the decision, saying the court was allowing the illegal hiding of evidence.

"Texans should be outraged that prosecutorial misconduct is going unchecked, and the State is being given a license to cheat – even if it means sending an innocent man to his death," she said.

For more information, head to the Texas Tribune