U.S. Supreme Court lets Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed pursue DNA testing in bid to prove innocence

The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way Wednesday for Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed to pursue DNA testing on evidence that his attorneys say may help exonerate him.

Reed, a Black man, was convicted in 1998 of killing Stacey Stites, a white 19-year-old, in Bastrop. Reed has maintained his innocence and has been engaged in a yearslong battle to get crime scene evidence, including the murder weapon, tested for traces of DNA.

"The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today is a critical step toward the ultimate goal of getting DNA testing in Rodney Reed’s case," said Parker Rider-Longmaid, one of Reed’s attorneys. "We are grateful that the Court has kept the courthouse doors open to Mr. Reed, a Black man who has spent 24 years on death row for the murder of a white woman with whom he was having an affair, a crime he has steadfastly maintained he did not commit."

Reed was set to be executed in November 2019, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the execution and sent his case back to a lower court to review new claims, including that Reed was innocent. But after a 2021 evidentiary hearing, the district judge ruled against granting Reed a new trial.

Reed petitioned the state to test the DNA evidence that he says will exonerate him, but the state argued against that testing, saying that the crime scene items were improperly stored and therefore could be contaminated. In 2014, a district court ruled in favor of the state, and in 2017, the Criminal Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.

The issue the Supreme Court took up was whether Reed waited too long to seek relief in federal court. The statute of limitations for due process claims is two years; the state argued that the clock started after Reed lost at trial in 2014. Reed’s lawyers contended that the clock started after the Criminal Court of Appeals denied Reed’s motion for a rehearing in October 2017. His federal civil rights lawsuit was filed in August 2019.

In an amicus brief in the case, the NAACP argued that a decision to limit the amount of time a prisoner has to bring due process claims would "disproportionately harm Black people and other people of color, who are more likely to be wrongfully convicted and must rely on access to DNA evidence to prove their innocence."

The high court agreed that the statute of limitations "begins to run when the state litigation ends, in this case when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Reed’s motion for rehearing." In a 6-3 decision, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that starting the clock before the state court process was exhausted would encourage plaintiffs to file state and federal suits simultaneously, creating "parallel litigation."

"We see no good reason for such senseless duplication," Kavanuagh wrote.

Kavanaugh was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented. Reed’s case will now return to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will reconsider his request for DNA testing.

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