Press Release 02.01.22

Judge at Rodney Reed’s Innocence Hearing Abandoned His Duty as Neutral, Thoughtful Fact Finder

The court copied and pasted the state’s proposed order with only minor changes.

By Innocence Staff

Sandra Reed, the mother of Rodney Reed, shows her continued support for her son outside a Texas courtroom on Oct. 10, 2017. (Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

(Austin, Texas) The trial court judge overseeing Rodney Reed’s July 2021 evidentiary hearing abdicated his role as an unbiased, deliberative, independent fact finder and rubberstamped the State’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, according to the Memorandum and Objections to Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law that Mr. Reed’s attorneys filed today at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA). Because the judge abandoned his duty to be a neutral, independent fact finder, the CCA should reject the trial court’s copy-and-pasted order, Mr. Reed argues.

Rodney Reed’s Memorandum and Objections to Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law can be viewed, here.

Mr. Reed was scheduled for execution in November 2019, but the CCA issued a stay to allow the courts to consider new evidence of his innocence and remanded the case to the 21st Judicial District Court in Bastrop County for an evidentiary hearing. Despite the new, overwhelming evidence of innocence presented at the evidentiary hearing, Judge J.D. Langley adopted, nearly verbatim, the State’s proposed order, including several obvious factual misrepresentations.

“The abdication of the judge’s duty cannot be tolerated, especially when an innocent man’s life is at stake.”

“The abdication of the judge’s duty cannot be tolerated, especially when an innocent man’s life is at stake. The CCA entrusted Judge Langley with making impartial findings and independent assessments of witnesses’ credibility, supported by the evidence. That did not happen,” said Jane Pucher, Senior Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project, and one of Mr. Reed’s attorneys.

At closing arguments, the judge demonstrated that he completely misunderstood his role as an independent fact finder and intended to adopt, in its entirely, one side’s proposed order: “What I’m here today to find out is why you think I ought to sign your version.” (Objections at pp. 1-2.)

Convicted by an all-white jury in 1998, Mr. Reed, a Black man, has spent 23 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. In 1996, Stacey Stites, a white woman with whom Mr. Reed was having an affair, was found murdered in Bastrop County. For nearly a year, the prime suspect in the case was Ms. Stites’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a police officer who was abusive and violent toward Ms. Stites, according to numerous witnesses. But the police turned their attention to Mr. Reed when DNA recovered from Ms. Stites matched him.

The judge’s cut-and-pasted order shows that he failed in his duty to carefully and independently assess the credibility of 47 witnesses. Having adopted the State’s proposed order wholesale, the court found all 20+ witnesses on Mr. Reed’s behalf to be not credible and found all 20+ witnesses on the State’s behalf to be credible.

“It is not plausible that ALL of Mr. Reed’s witnesses were not credible, including former law enforcement officers. That is especially true, given that the witnesses Mr. Reed called had no motive to help him: these were friends and co-workers of Ms. Stites and of Mr. Fennell,” said Pucher.

At least eight witnesses, including Ms. Stites’s co-workers, friends, and family, and a former member of law enforcement, testified at the evidentiary hearing that Ms. Stites and Mr. Reed knew each other and were romantically involved at the time of her death. This testimony disproved the State’s theory at trial that Mr. Reed and Ms. Stites were strangers, she never would have associated with him, and therefore he must have kidnapped and sexually assaulted her. (Objections at p. 17.)

In particular, Suzan Hugen, Ms. Stites’s friend and co-worker, testified at the evidentiary hearing that she saw Ms. Stites standing close to a Black man at the HEB, the two were laughing and flirting, and Ms. Stites introduced him to Ms. Hugen as “Rodney” and a good friend. Ms. Hugen, a disabled mother of four, traveled from out of state to testify “for Stacey,” her friend and former co-worker. (Objections at pp. 17, 22, 25, 39.) Despite the fact that eight witnesses corroborated each other, the court did not credit any of the testimony showing Ms. Stites and Mr. Reed knew each other.

At least nine witnesses, including Ms. Stites’s friends and co-workers, and a member of law enforcement, testified at the evidentiary hearing that Ms. Stites and Mr. Fennell did not have a happy relationship. Their testimony described Ms. Stites’s and Mr. Fennell’s relationship as hostile, controlling, and even abusive. This evidence directly contradicted Mr. Fennell’s testimony at Mr. Reed’s trial that the couple had a loving and trouble-free relationship and were looking forward to their wedding. (Objections at p. 22.). Their testimony also explained Mr. Fennell’s motive to harm his fiancée: he suspected she was cheating on him with a Black man.

Charles Wayne Fletcher, a former member of the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office, stated that Mr. Fennell told him a month before Ms. Stites was murdered that she was “fucking a ni****.” (Objections at pp. 22, 27.) The son of Ms. Stites’s downstairs neighbor testified that he was with his father when he told former Lee County District Attorney Ted Weems about the violent fights he overheard in Ms. Stites’s and Mr. Fennell’s apartment, information that the State illegally suppressed at the time of trial. (Objections at pp. 22-23.) Equally shocking, an insurance agent who sold life insurance to Ms. Stites with Mr. Fennell present testified that Ms. Stites said she was not sure why she needed life insurance. Mr. Fennell responded: “If I ever caught you messing around on me, I will kill you and nobody’ll know that I was the one that did it.” (Objections at p. 23.)

Despite the corroborating testimony of these nine witnesses, the court discredited it all. (Objections at p. 24.) In contrast, the only witnesses who testified that the couple’s relationship was peaceful, and that the court credited as credible, were Mr. Fennell himself, his mother, and his sister. Mr. Fennell, of course, has every reason to bend the truth.

At least three witnesses testified at the evidentiary hearing that Mr. Fennell knew Ms. Stites was having an affair with a Black man and therefore had a motive to murder her. Two more witnesses testified that Mr. Fennell made callous remarks about Ms. Stites soon after her death. Two other witnesses testified that Mr. Fennell confessed to killing Ms. Stites. If this evidence had been presented at trial, it would have undercut the image of Mr. Fennell as a grieving fiancé, shown that Mr. Fennell had a motive to kill Ms. Stites, and the jury would not have convicted Mr. Reed. (Objections at pp. 27-29.)

In addition to Mr. Fletcher’s testimony that Mr. Fennell was aware of an affair with a Black man, James Clampit, a deputy in the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and an acquaintance of Mr. Fennell’s, testified that he attended Ms. Stites’s viewing, where he heard Mr. Fennell say “she got what she deserved.” (Objections at p. 27.) That testimony was corroborated by another member of law enforcement and former co-worker of Mr. Fennell’s, Cindy Schmidt, who testified that she overheard Mr. Fennell say at Ms. Stites’s viewing: “at least the bitch got to wear her wedding dress.” (Objections at p. 27.)

Two people who were incarcerated with Mr. Fennell, when he was serving a ten-year sentence for sexually assaulting a woman in his custody as a police officer, testified that Mr. Fennell knew about Ms. Stites’s affair with a Black man and confessed to killing her. One testified
that Mr. Fennell said that he “took care of her” and “that damn n[-word] is going to do the time” while making a strangulation gesture. (Objections at p. 28.)

The court did not credit any of these witnesses, including the former law enforcement officers, and instead credited the statements of Mr. Fennell, whose testimony was uncorroborated and self-serving. (Objections at p. 29.)

The court clearly erred in crediting Mr. Fennell’s self-serving and uncorroborated testimony over more reliable witnesses who, unlike Mr. Fennell, had no motive to lie. Mr. Fennell had a strong motivation to lie because he was once the prime suspect in Ms. Stites’s murder and would be again if Mr. Reed’s conviction was overturned. (Objections at p. 29.)

At the evidentiary hearing, Mr. Fennell was caught in lies numerous times. For example, he said he only texted with a State investigator once or twice before the hearing, but Mr. Reed’s counsel presented evidence that he and the investigator texted over 100 times. Mr. Fennell denied cleaning out his bank accounts after Ms. Stites’s death, but a police report and bank records showed that he did. Mr. Fennell also testified that he did not use the “N” word very often, but several witnesses testified to the contrary, and he later admitted that he did use the word. (Objections at pp. 29-30.)

Mr. Fennell asserted, implausibly, that every single one of Mr. Reed’s witnesses – nearly two dozen witnesses – was lying at the evidentiary hearing. Mr. Fennell was forthcoming on one key point: he testified that he pled guilty to kidnapping and improper sexual contact with a person in his custody as a police officer and served 10 years in prison for the offense. (Objections at pp. 30-31.)

In addition, nationally recognized experts who testified at the evidentiary hearing completely debunked the forensic case against Mr. Reed. Two nationally recognized forensic experts testified pro bono that the conviction against Mr. Reed was based on flawed forensic testimony. The State’s two forensic experts agreed with Mr. Reed’s experts on several key points, including that the State sponsored false scientific testimony at Mr. Reed’s trial. Despite this agreement, the court refused to credit any of Mr. Reed’s forensic experts. Former Travis County Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo filed an affidavit in 2012 stating that key points of his trial testimony were “incorrect” and not “medically or scientifically supported,” but the court, in adopting the State’s proposed order without changes, incorrectly found that Dr. Bayardo did not recant his testimony. (Objections at pp. 31-38.)

The court ignored compelling evidence that Mr. Reed’s expert witnesses were more credible than the State’s experts. Significantly, Mr. Reed’s forensic experts testified pro bono, while the State’s experts charged up to $500 per hour. After Mr. Reed’s experts issued their report, 14 other respected forensic pathologists agreed with its conclusions. The court did not acknowledge this overwhelming support for Mr. Reed’s experts’ conclusions in its order. (Objections at pp. 39-40.)

On the eve of the July 2021 evidentiary hearing, the State revealed, for the first time, that friends and co-workers of Ms. Stites told police — before Mr. Reed’s trial — that Mr. Reed and Ms. Stites knew each other and were romantically involved. This testimony disproved the State’s theory at Mr. Reed’s trial that he and Ms. Stites were strangers, who would not have associated with each other, and therefore he had to have kidnapped and sexually assaulted her. Despite having these witness statements in its files, the State falsely told the jury investigators “talked to all these people” and looked high and low for evidence of a relationship and found no evidence. (See Mr. Reed’s Request for Grant of Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus at here.)

The State also illegally suppressed statements from Ms. Stites’s neighbors about loud domestic violence arguments between Ms. Stites and Mr. Fennell. After Ms. Stites’s murder, her downstairs neighbor, William Sappington, reported violent domestic arguments between Ms. Stites and Mr. Fennell to a police officer and a District Attorney in neighboring Lee County, Ted Weems. Although then-District Attorney Weems was required to turn this information over to Mr. Reed’s attorneys, he — like other police and prosecutors — did not do so. (See Mr. Reed’s Request for Grant of Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus at here.)

These two crystal clear Brady violations follow a pattern of earlier Brady violations that are still pending before the CCA and are detailed in Mr. Reed’s 2019 habeas petition.

Pucher added, “For 23 years, prosecutors illegally hid evidence that could have exonerated Mr. Reed. Under the U.S. Supreme Court case Brady vs. Maryland (1963), the State had an affirmative duty to turn over all evidence that was favorable to Mr. Reed’s defense. Instead, the State hid the evidence pointing to Mr. Reed’s innocence for more than two decades. Under the black letter law of Brady, Mr. Reed’s conviction and death sentence must be overturned.”

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  1. Michael Parker says:

    Thank you for your factual and comprehensive explanations in all your on-line presentations.
    Your successes are gaining more commitments to eliminate barbaric executions as legal and to ultimately eliminate these legalized murcers.

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