Two months ahead of the scheduled execution date for Texas inmate Rodney Reed, The Intercept questions if the state is readying to kill an innocent man. Reed was convicted of the 1996 brutal rape and murder of Stacey Stites and sentenced to death. Now, as his execution date nears, Reed’s supporters and relatives of Stites, who was 19 years old and weeks away from wedding a former police officer, believe Reed was wrongly convicted and that Stites fiancé is responsible for her death.
The Intercept reports that years after Stites was murdered, Stites fiancé, Jimmy Lewis Fennell, Jr., was a police sergeant with the Georgetown, Texas, Police Department when he was arrested and ultimately pleaded guilty to kidnapping and improper sexual contact with a person in custody. Multiple victims came forward with similar stories revealing Fennell as a dangerous man, prompting suspicion into Stites’ case.
Stites’ body was found half dressed on the side of the road in the early morning hours after she was scheduled to start her shift at a local grocery store. Her car was found ten miles away. Although her mother testified that Fennell was set to take her to work that morning, he later claimed that the plan changed and Stites would be driving herself and that he was still asleep when she left. Officials never questioned the rookie cop Fennell about the timeline leading up to her disappearance, and he got rid of the abandoned car shortly after. He was dismissed as a suspect and attention shifted to Reed who had been accused of a number of sexual assaults but never convicted.
A year following Stites’ murder, police tested DNA from semen found inside Stites with DNA collected from an unrelated case in which Reed had been accused of assaulting a woman and determined it was a match. After that, authorities put together a story of how Reed kidnapped and assaulted her before dumping her body and getting rid of the car.
Reed eventually revealed that he had a secret relationship with Stites and that he had been previously scared to admit to the affair since he was black and she was a white woman engaged to a police officer in a small Texas community. Several witnesses have confirmed knowledge of the affair.
Reed was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death. He has maintained his innocence for the past 18 years with his family members and local activists insisting that Fennell was never sufficiently investigated as a suspect. His legal team claims the state mishandled and potentially contaminated evidence and withheld scientific evidence including two empty beer cans found at the crime scene that revealed DNA belonging to a fellow police officer and friend of Fennell.
Despite Fennell’s history and new evidence, the U.S. Supreme Court announced earlier this month that it will not review Reed’s appeal in which he argued that he deserved a new trial because he received incompetent legal help during his 1998 trial.
In July, Reed was given an execution date of January 14, 2015 and Innocence Project attorney Bryce Benjet is fighting for DNA testing on the belt used to strangle Stites and the tattered clothing she was found in—all of which have never been tested.
“[F]rankly, what we’re asking for is, I think, a pretty conservative thing,” Benjet says, “To do DNA testing of evidence before you execute someone.” A November 25 hearing has been scheduled to consider the request.
Stites’ relatives support the effort for DNA testing and have started a letter writing campaign to Gov. Rick Perry asking him to stop the execution.