Innocence Project Files Petition with U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Rodney Reed, who has been on Texas death row for over 20 years
(September 24, 2019 – Washington, D.C.) Today, lawyers for Rodney Reed, who is scheduled for execution on November 20, 2019, filed a petition to the United States Supreme Court challenging the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ unexplained rejection of critical evidence of innocence in his 1998 conviction for the murder of Stacey Stites.
This petition asks the United States Supreme Court to review new and comprehensive evidence of innocence that both negates the State’s case against Reed, and confirms the police investigator’s initial suspicions of Stites’s fiancé, a local police officer named Jimmy Fennell. The petition also asks the Court to correct constitutional errors created based on the discovery that (1) Fennell did not give a consistent account of where he was on the night Stites was murdered and (2) all of the State’s expert witnesses who supported the State’s theory that Reed raped and murdered Stites have withdrawn or modified those opinions.
“I fear the State of Texas may execute an innocent man.” Benjet
“The evidence supporting Reed’s innocence is uncontradicted and undeniable, and without the Supreme Court’s intervention, I fear the State of Texas may execute an innocent man,” said Bryce Benjet, Reed’s lawyer and senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
The State’s medical examiner Roberto Bayardo, M.D., whose testimony connecting Reed to the murder was the lynchpin of the State’s case and was repeated to the jury in response to a question, has now retracted his trial testimony. Instead, Dr. Bayardo now believes the forensic evidence corroborates Reed’s consistent defense that he and Stites were involved in a discrete sexual relationship, and that they were together about a day before Stites’s death. Moreover, renowned forensic pathologists Werner Spitz, M.D. and Michael Baden, M.D., have concluded without contradiction, that the State’s theory of Stites being raped and murdered within a two-hour period is medically and scientifically impossible.
In addition to the comprehensive proof of innocence, the petition focuses on evidence further supporting Bastrop investigator’s pursuit of Fennell as a suspect in the murder. Specifically, long-time Bastrop Sheriff’s Officer Curtis Davis, who testified at a 2017 hearing that he spent the day with Fennell (his best friend at the time) on April 23, 1996, while police were looking for Stites after she failed to show up for a 3:30 a.m. work shift. Officer Davis recounted that Fennell told him that he had been out the night before drinking with other police officers, and that Fennell stayed out late so not to disturb Stites. This story was entirely different from what Fennell told police investigators and at trial, which was that he and Stites spent a quiet evening at home.
When Fennell was called as a witness at a 2017 hearing to explain these drastic differences in his story of where he was at the time Stites was murdered, Fennell refused and asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The petition highlights that Fennell’s inability to give a straightforward account of the very hours the forensic experts now understand Stites was murdered, supports that “Fennell lied about the events that occurred the night of April 22, 1996, to his best friend Officer Davis, the police and, later, the jury.”
Today’s filing also alleges that Reed’s constitutional rights were violated by the use of invalid scientific evidence to convict.
Today’s filing also alleges that Reed’s constitutional rights were violated by the use of invalid scientific evidence to convict. The state’s three forensic experts (or their employing agencies) who tied Reed to the murder have now admitted to scientific errors in their testimony that were central to Reed’s conviction.
“In cases of similar errors by the FBI crime lab, prosecutors and the courts have correctly stepped in to make sure criminal convictions are not secured with invalid science,” said Benjet. “Especially in a case where there is already powerful evidence of innocence, we are asking the Supreme Court to address the grave harm when criminal convictions and even death sentences are obtained with invalid scientific evidence.
Throughout the post-conviction investigation, the state’s case has been deconstructed and invalidated by Reed’s defense team. In June 2018, they filed an Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus before a Texas court that included candid admissions of error and affidavits from the same expert witnesses who were called by the state at Reed’s 1998 Bastrop County murder trial. This now-recanted expert testimony provided a crucial link between Reed’s DNA and the murder and was used to refute Reed’s long-maintained insistence that he is innocent of the crime, but was involved in a consensual sexual relationship with Stites.
“In cases of similar errors by the FBI crime lab, prosecutors and the courts have correctly stepped in to make sure criminal convictions are not secured with invalid science.”
Additionally, renowned forensic pathologist Michael Baden, M.D. also testified at a hearing in 2017 that the condition of Stites’s body rendered the state’s theory of Reed’s guilt impossible. Where the state argued Stites was killed between 3-5 a.m. on April 23, 1996, the evidence showed that Stites was actually killed before midnight on April 22. Baden’s testimony was corroborated by two other leading experts and uncontradicted by the state.
In the 20 years since Reed’s trial, there is extensive evidence that both exonerates Reed and implicates Fennell. New witnesses have come forward, including Stites’s cousin, who was aware that Reed and Stites were romantically involved. A co-worker of Stites has also described a conversation with Stites only weeks before her murder in which Stites confided that she was sleeping with a black man named Rodney, that she was concerned what would happen if Fennell found out, and that she had to “be careful.”
Years after the murder, Fennell plead guilty to kidnapping and another sex crime arising out of charges that he kidnapped and raped a young woman while Fennell was on patrol as a Georgetown Police officer. He was released last year after serving a 10-year prison term for a sex crime.
Reed is represented by Benjet; Andrew MacRae of Levatino Pace PLLC; and Cliff C. Gardner, Robert A. Weber, Michelle L. Davis, Nicole A. DiSalvo, Juliana R. van Hoeven of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.