Death Penalty

New DNA Evidence Likely Exonerates a Texas Death Row Inmate. The Government Won't Test It.

Rodney Reed is set to die by lethal injection in less than two weeks.

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Time is running out for Rodney Reed, a Texas man on death row who is scheduled to die on November 20. There are many reasons to doubt Reed's guilt, but the most glaring one is that several experts have concluded it's scientifically impossible. The state is set to execute Reed anyway.

Reed, who was convicted in 1998 for the murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites, will be put to death by lethal injection in just under two weeks unless Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) intervenes. A group of bipartisan state legislators made their plea for a reprieve on Tuesday, asking for more time to review the mounting body of evidence that Reed did not kill Stites.

The Innocence Project, which is representing Reed, has reported on a litany of evidentiary and procedural problems that suggest Reed was convicted despite his innocence. Three forensic experts for the state filed formal affidavits explaining that the estimated time of death presented by prosecutors at trial was inaccurate, which "makes the timeline for Reed killing Stites implausible," the Innocence Project notes.

"The Texas Department of Public Safety (who employed the State's expert Karen Blakely), the Bode Cellmark Forensics Laboratory (who employed the State's retained expert Meghan Clement), and the State's forensic pathologist Dr. Roberto Bayardo, have all now acknowledged that the scientific opinions offered by the State to tie Mr. Reed to the murder were in error," Reed's 2018 appeal reads.

That appeal was denied.

"My estimate of time of death, again, was only an estimate, and should not have been used at trial as an accurate statement of when Ms. Stites died," wrote Bayardo in his affidavit. The pathologist originally approximated her death occurred at 3:30 a.m. on April 23, 1996. "If the prosecuting attorneys had advised me that they intended to use my time of death estimate as a scientifically reliable opinion of when Ms. Stites died, I would have advised them not to do so."

And that advisement may have turned the case on its head. Forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, whose account has been bolstered by three other medical experts, testified in October 2017 that "to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, [Stites] was dead before midnight."

That's significant, as Stites' fiancé Jimmy Fennell said the two were together at home during that time. Fennell, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for rape in 2007, has been the subject of growing suspicion in recent years. His former cellmate, Arthur Snow, submitted an affidavit on October 29 of this year in which he testified that Fennell confessed to the murder during a private conversation between the two. Stites was allegedly engaged in an affair with Reed, a black man, which incensed Fennell as he prepared for his impending marriage to Stites.

"I had to kill my nigger-loving fiancée," Snow claims Fennell told him. Reed and Stites' consensual sexual relationship has been corroborated by Stites' cousin, who submitted an affidavit in 2016 admitting that she knew of their relationship prior to her death. And Fennell, a former police officer, told a colleague about the affair as well.

The state's case always hinged on one piece of DNA evidence: Reed's semen, which was found inside Stites' body. No one came forward to confirm their relationship at trial, so prosecutors framed the evidence as an assault.

In that vein, there is new evidence available to the state for DNA testing, including Stites' clothing and the belt used to strangle her. (Half of the murder weapon was found next to Fennell's truck.) But the state won't test it, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take a closer look at the matter. Current precedent from the high court holds that defendants have no constitutional right to DNA testing, The Appeal notes, leaving people like Reed at the mercy of state courts or the prosecutors who have a vested interest in keeping them locked up—or worse.

As the clock nears the eleventh hour, a slew of media personalities, politicians, and celebrities—including Meek Mill, who has been affected by the criminal justice system himself—have urged Abbott to take a closer look at the case. And Reed isn't giving up hope.

"I don't feel beaten down," he tells NBC News. "I mean, I'm cautiously optimistic that something good has got to happen. I mean, I'm a believer. You know? I'm a believer."

NEXT: California's Power Outages Are Making Gov. Gavin Newsom Resemble Recalled Gov. Gray Davis

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  1. If he was innocent he wouldn’t have been charged.
    Right?

    1. we also would have accepted “well, even if he’s innocent of this he must be guilty of *something* if the police were looking at him”

      1. In this case, that was why they had his DNA to begin with. This is the sort of case the “he must have been guilty of something” people hang their hat on.

    2. You may be interested in reading Page 8 onwards of this Supreme Court brief:
      http://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/17/17-1093/45899/20180507150103836_Reed%20BIO%20FINAL.pdf

      II. THE STATE’S PUNISHMENT CASE

      The rape and murder of Stites was hardly Reed’s first or last foray against women. First was Connie York, a nineteen-year-old who had come home late one evening after swimming with friends. 57.RR.34–35. York was grabbed from behind and told “don’t scream or I’ll hurt you.” 57.RR.35–36. When York did not listen, she was repeatedly struck, dragged to her bedroom, and raped multiple times. 57.RR.37–42. Reed was interviewed, and, while he admitted that he knew York from high school, he denied raping her. 57.RR.123–24. When confronted with a search warrant for biological samples, Reed had an about-face, “Yeah, I had sex with her, she wanted it.” 57.RR.138. The case went to trial four years later, 57.RR.30, 60, and Reed was acquitted, 57.RR.61.

      Next was A.W., a twelve-year-old girl, who was home alone, having fallen asleep on a couch after watching TV. 58.RR.36–42. A.W. awoke when someone began pushing her face into the couch and had blindfolded and gagged her. 58.RR.42–43. She was repeatedly hit in the head, called vulgar names, and orally, vaginally, and anally raped. 58.RR.43–49. The foreign DNA from A.W.’s rape kit was compared to Reed; Reed was not excluded and only one in 5.5 billion people would have the same foreign DNA profile from A.W.’s rape kit. 58.RR.51, 92; 61.RR.26.

      Then came Lucy Eipper, who Reed had met in high school, and whom Reed began to date after her graduation. 59.RR.10–12. Eipper had two children with Reed. 59.RR.13–14, 19–20 Throughout their relationship, Reed physically abused Eipper, including while she was pregnant, and raped her “all the time,” including one time in front of their two children. 59.RR.14–17, 21, 25–32.

      Afterwards, Reed began dating Caroline Rivas, an intellectually disabled woman. 60.RR.39–41. Rivas’s caseworker noticed bruises on Rivas’s body and, when asked about them, Rivas admitted that Reed would hurt her if she would not have sex with him. 60.RR.41, 61. Later, Rivas’s caseworker noticed that Rivas was walking oddly and sat down gingerly. 60.RR.43. Rivas admitted that Reed had, the prior evening, hit her, called her vulgar names, and anally raped her. 60.RR.44, 63–65. The samples from Rivas’s rape kit provided the link to Stites’s murder. 60.RR.89–90.

      Shortly thereafter, and about six months before Stites’s murder, Reed raped Vivian Harbottle underneath a train trestle as she was walking home. 59.RR.87–92. When she pleaded for her life for the sake of her children, Reed laughed at her. 59.RR.94. The foreign DNA from Harbottle’s rape kit was compared to Reed; he could not be excluded, and only one person in 5.5 billion would be expected to have the same foreign DNA profile. 59.RR.95, 113–14; 61.RR.26.

      Finally, and about six months after Stites’s murder, Reed convinced nineteen-year-old Linda Schlueter to give him a ride home at about 3:30 a.m. 61.RR.10, 37–47. Reed led her to a remote area and then attacked her. 61.RR.47–58. After a prolonged struggle, Schlueter asked Reed what he wanted and Reed responded, “I want a blow job.” 61.RR.60. When Schlueter told Reed that “you will have to kill me before you get anything,” Reed stated “I guess I’ll have to kill you then.” 61.RR.60. Before Schlueter could be raped, a car drove by and Reed fled. 61.RR.62–64.

      1. Count me among the make-damned-sure-you’ve-got-the-right-guy-before-you-execute-somebody camp.

        That being said, when your semen shows up inside a 12 year old oral, vaginal and anal rape victim, I won’t lose much sleep over your fate.

  2. This is depressingly close to that Boondocks episode.

    Also, even if this guy doesn’t have the right to more DNA testing, shouldn’t he at least have the opportunity to do it at his own expense? It seems like it would be withholding evidence to not give him access to the items in question so that he could do his own testing.

    1. The fiancée was the primary focus of the investigation for almost a year. Reed’s name didn’t come up until a DNA test was done and he was identified as the donor almost a year after the murder.

  3. “And Fennell, a former police officer, told a colleague about the affair as well.”

    When I first read about this story, I couldn’t help but think it was odd that the fiance didn’t appear to be investigated very thoroughly because usually they get the most scrutiny. And now I have a hunch as to why any evidence against him might have been overlooked

  4. The word of the defendant’s family members 20 years after the fact and the classic “But it was consensual!” all at the 11th hour. Yes, clearly this man must freed at once.

    1. Didn’t know her. Didn’t know her. Oh, the semen matches my DNA? OK, I did know her; but, it was consensual.

      When was Reed most credible?

      And how about the semen DNA match to Reed in case of the rape of the 12 y.o. girl “A.W.” that was not prosecuted because Reed was prosecuted and convicted for the more serious crime of murder of Stites?

  5. I’m a regular donor to the Innocence Project but I think they’re wrong on this one. Reed had a habit of violent raping women. In fact, he was arrested for a rape a few years before Stites was murdered – he was identified in that case by DNA. And he used the same “we had a consensual relationship” excuse that he used here.

    And the biggest problem I have with believing that the fiancee had anything to do with it is that there’s just no plausible way that the fiancée could have killed her, dumped her body 30 miles away from their apartment, dumped their truck 35 miles away from their apartment, and then somehow travelled back to their apartment.

    I don’t think Reed should be executed because I don’t think anybody should be executed because the government fucks it up too often. But I think Reed killed the girl.

    1. Given all that, why would anyone object to testing all the available evidence? Maybe you don’t?

      1. “Given all that, why would anyone object to testing all the available evidence?”

        Fine with me. I have no objection to testing all of the evidence, not just in this case but in every case. As I said, I’m sympathetic to (and donate to) the innocence movement. Facts help to clarify.

        I think Reed probably did it, but am I certain? No – I wasn’t there. But I’ve read the trial transcript and am familiar with the area and I am virtually certain the fiancée wasn’t involved.

  6. call me when a jury member must also be executioner

  7. Hints of racism, “thin blue line”, accusations of prosecutor misconduct…

    This case has everything.

    1. Read the Supreme Court brief above.

  8. Pretty damned good example of why the state should not murder people. Everyone involved in the prosecution is doing their damnedest to keep the “new” evidence from being considered, because once the guy is dead, the pressure is done.

  9. I’m sorry, but looking at this, while there are concerns, what would DNA testing tell us?

    The best case scenario for the defense is that both of the suspects, who, if your theory is correct, were close to the victim, had been in contact with her clothing. We already know that. Half of the belt was found near Fennel’s truck. If Reed did do it, then the theory has to have been that he discarded it by (or in) the truck so Fennel would be blamed. The idea that Fennel touched it, if only to throw away this belt that was on his truck, is trivial.

    The boyfriend and the time of death are serious questions that seem to be worth looking into. However, the shock that DNA testing wasn’t done is absurd. There’s nothing that DNA could tell us.

    1. This. I see no possible way that DNA could “exonerate” him.

  10. Never give the government power to execute.

  11. Humans are not perfect and neither are the systems they create.
    That bad results do happen has long been a known fact for most people.

    I notice Reason did not mention a word about a pardon. Why is that ? Didn’t fit its message ?

    1. Perhaps because the evidence that would either corroborate or exonerate has yet to be tested. So they recommend testing it to determine the truth, rather than advocating for a position that may or may not be correct.

  12. Funny how people who are usually distrustful of government always seem to think it got things right when a black guy is on death row.

    1. The editors have repeatedly stretched the truth to the point of outright lies where death penalty cases are concerned. The one that comes to mind is declaring “he didn’t do it” when it was really an absurd article challenging the concept of felony murder.

      The idea that this could be another one of those articles is of the “fool me once” variety. The idea that he didn’t do it based on the fact that they didn’t test DNA on the victim’s clothes (which would prove what, exactly?) is marginal at best.

      1. It’s worth noting they didn’t test the DNA on the murder weapon either, which seems like a more substantial oversight.

        This case doesn’t necessarily scream “innocence” to me, but it certainly looks pretty damned sloppy, and the prosecutors are doing themselves no favors by trying to prevent the testing. If they had confidence they’d got the right guy, why not let them test it?

        1. Absence of evidence being…

          1. Absence of evidence being pretty damned significant, if the reason for the absence is that the evidence has been suppressed.

            1. Evidence has to exist in order to be suppressed. You have no knowledge that any detectable dna is present on the belt.

              You really should not use words you do not understand.

    2. Or maybe it’s the history of rape and violence…. Race-baiter.

    3. Just because it’s a black guy on death row doesn’t mean that thinking he is guilty is due to racism.

      There are plenty of cases where a black guy has been on death row and you read the history of the case and look at the evidence and you know immediately that the conviction is bullshit. Just in Texas, Anthony Graves and Clarence Brandley come to mind.

      In this case you’ve got a guy who had a history of violently raping women. Nobody said a word about him having a relationship with the victim until nearly a year after the murder when his DNA was found to have matched that at the murder scene. The victim’s pickup was abandoned in a hidden location that was very convenient for Reed to walk home along a railroad track – and he was well known in the community for walking in the early morning along the railroad tracks.

      And there’s no other viable suspect, and really nothing that points to his innocence.

  13. Sigh…You’d think Billy Binion would do a little research and tell Readership some important additional information. Could it be as simple as a cost issue, meaning taxpayers don’t want to be responsible for the cost?

    Q: So….Billy Binion: How much does the DNA test actually cost?

    1. “Extracting DNA from the sample and amplifying it to determine if there is adequate DNA material to move forward is estimated at $500 per sample. Should the sample be taken through the entire process, the average cost of the full process is about $2,000.”

      https://www.forensicmag.com/article/2014/09/when-more-expensive-costs-less

      1. Well alright then….This 2K can be paid by the family of the prisoner.

  14. Based on no knowledge but reading the comments here, what is the explanation? To summarize, you have a prisoner with a pre-existing criminal record, judged by prosecutors to be highly dangerous. And you have him associated beyond doubt with a murdered person. And you have stubborn reluctance to test all the evidence, apparently because that might or might not cast sufficient doubt on his conviction to prevent the prisoner’s execution.

    I suggest that points toward a possibility impossible to ignore—that prosecutors think the guy deserves executing, whether he did this crime or not. And also, that public safety will be served by executing this prisoner, whether he did this crime or not.

    Having taken that stand and acted on it, prosecutors are now in the position of being embarrassed for it, if tested evidence indicated reasonable doubt of guilt. So they oppose testing the evidence—not just because they could be embarrassed, but also because they are still committed to a motive they know they can’t admit.

    1. Well Mr. Lathrop….If the family of this about to be executed felon is that convinced, then they can shell out the $2,000 for the test. No need for taxpayers to foot that bill.

      1. I don’t think it is just the $ cost of the DNA test.

        The consideration is the cost of reopening a closed case for a test that may prove nothing of substance.

        This, I believe, is the test on the DNA on the belt (murder weapon)?

    2. Mr. Lathrop –
      You might want to reconsider that cynical speculation, because that was my second or third thought also.

  15. Rodney Reed was tried or indicted for 6 separate rapes, including of a 12-year-old girl.
    His first rape case was in 1987 in which he used a similar “it was consensual” defense. Reed explained the girl’s injuries by claiming he only hit her. He got off with 6 months in prison for assault (and was acquitted for rape).

    By 1996, Reed’s DNA was linked to 4 other rape cases, including of a 12-year-old girl and a mentally handicapped woman. Authorities pursued the rape and capital murder charge for Stacey Stites instead of the rape of the 12-year-old girl and others, because capital murder carries the maximum penalty, while the rape of a 12-year-old does not.

    A 7th woman, Linda Schlueter, accused Reed of attempting to rape her in the same area Stites’ body was found, and she says he also threatened to kill her if she didn’t let him rape her.

    Reed’s DNA matched the DNA in and on Stacey’s body.
    It also matched DNA from his previous rapes, which were already on file.
    When first questioned by police about Stacey Stites, Reed claimed he’d never met her.
    During trial, he changed his story to the same old excuse he gave for his earlier rapes:
    “It was consensual.”

    1. It seems that a fair number of innocence project cases are much less “he was definitely innocent” than they tend to portray.

      Still, I’m a huge proponent of the project (and small donor. Hey, we are not all made out of money…)

      1. I suspect that the majority of the benefit they provide is not to be found in such high profile cases.

        More that, due to their efforts, there are other cases where the issues are quickly identified and clearly resolved much earlier in the process. Those tend to be anti-dramatic, so don’t get recognized.

    2. Thanks for providing this information. There is literally not a single media outlet (including Reason) that has talked about this track record of violent rape by the accused.

      It’s almost as if the media want to keep covering up and enabling violent rapists.

  16. All of you quick to cite Reed’s police record for violent rape are not also citing, nor does the article cite (it merely gives a throwaway reference to a former cellmate), that the fiancee Fennell who was the only suspect for a full year also has a history of violent rape and spent 8 years in prison for it. Fellow inmates have come forward to state that Fennell confessed multiple times while he was in prison. I also note that none of the commenters mention the very first two paragraphs which are the biggest problem with this case – that the time of death was before midnight, which makes it impossible for Reed to have been the killer, and that the pathologist warned prosecutors at the time that 3:30 am should not be used as the time of death.

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