Lawyers for Rodney Reed, a black man who claims he was wrongly convicted in the 1996 murder of a white woman, have called a man they claim to be the victim’s real killer to testify at a hearing in testimony Thursday.
Reed has spent decades on death row after being sentenced to death in the murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas, but the state’s highest courtin November 2019. As his execution date approached, the case . Nearly 3 million people have signed a petition calling for clemency and prominent figures such as Kim Kardashian West, Rihanna, Beyonce, Meek Mill and Oprah have expressed their support for Reed.
The Criminal Appeal Court sent the case back to the lower court to determine whether Reed deserves a new trial.
Reed said he had an affair with Stites and had consensual sex with her the day before she died, but has long denied killing her.
At the Bastrop County Court hearing that began on Monday, Reed’s lawyers werein an attempt to implicate Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a former white police officer. Fennell, who later served prison time for kidnapping a woman while on duty, on Thursday denied having anything to do with Stites’ murder.
“I know the truth is going to come out,” Fennell said, reports Bettie Cross of CBS Austin. “I’m on Stacey’s side.”
During Reed’s trial in 1998, prosecutors claimed Stites spent an evening at home with Fennell before leaving and heading to work, and during the ride they said Reed intercepted, raped and strangled and left her body in a remote area. They cited Reed’s semen found in Stites’ body as evidence of Reed’s guilt.
Reed’s defense team claim that the small amount of semen found in Stites’ body actually supports Reed’s claim that the two men had consensual sex the day before his death. During this week’s hearing, Reed’s defense called two forensic experts who said Stites’ body condition indicated that she was killed hours earlier than prosecutors claimed, at a time when she was at home with Fennell.
Asked by Reed’s defense attorney Andrew MacRae about the testimony, Fennell said of the experts: “They’re both lying.”
Reed’s defense earlier in the week called witnesses who described a volatile relationship between Stites and Fennell. A witness said she saw Fennell “yelling” at Stites in the parking lot of the grocery store where she worked, Cross reports. Another witness, a former colleague, said she saw bruises resembling fingerprints on Stites’ wrists, “as if someone had grabbed her and pulled her”. Another colleague reportedly said that Fennell was “very jealous and very controlling, threatening,” and that Stites was not sure whether he wanted to complete their marriage, which was days away.
Other witnesses said they saw Stites and Reed together at the grocery store. A former colleague, Alicia Slater, testified that Stites “said she was not thrilled to be married because [Stites was] sleeping with a black man named Rodney, ”Cross reports.
Reed’s defense also called a man who was previously incarcerated with Fennell, who said Fennell confessed to killing Stites. The man, Arthur Snow, said he was involved with the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang and that Fennell asked for protection. Snow claimed that Fennell told him, “You wouldn’t believe how easily a belt would break when you strangle a loving whore.” The belt which was used to strangle Stites was found in two pieces.
Another man who was once jailed with Fennell, Michael Bordelon, testified that Fennell told him, “I took care of the problem. I took care of her and this fucking shit is going to make time. The problem has been taken care of. “
Testifying Thursday, Fennell denied that Stites and Reed had an affair, and said the testimony of former inmates and Stites’ colleagues was false.
When MacRae said to Fennell, “A reasonable person might conclude that it was you who killed Miss Stites, not Rodney Reed,” replied Fennell, “No.”
An attorney for Fennell asked why witnesses waited so long to come forward and pointed to past assault allegations against Reed, including a 1987 rape in which he was acquitted. On Thursday, Fennell said Stites “deserved to live a happy life” and that he felt responsible for his death because “I didn’t get up to take him to work.”
“I was a policeman and I couldn’t even protect my own family,” he said.
When asked by prosecutors why he didn’t marry Stites, Fennell replied, “Because Rodney Reed murdered her,” evoking an audible response from Reed’s supporters in the courtroom.
Prosecutors maintained that Reed murdered Stites and said there was no error in his original trial. In an opening statement from the prosecution Monday, Lisa Tanner, assistant attorney general for Texas, said there was no evidence of a “secret case,” Cross reported. Tanner said Reed’s lawyers had four different versions of what happened the night of Stites ‘murder, and said prosecutors were defending Stites’ honor against their latest theory.
“Our evidence is nothing new and nothing we haven’t said for 25 years,” Tanner said.
A judge is not expected to rule immediately after the two-week hearing on whether Reed deserves a new trial. A final decision will ultimately be rendered by the court of appeal.