Death row inmate Rodney Reed shouldn’t get new trial in death of Stacey Stites, Bastrop County judge recommends

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BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — After two weeks of testimony this summer and closing arguments Oct. 18, the 21st District Court in Bastrop delivered its recommendation in Rodney Reed’s evidentiary hearing and recommended Reed be denied any relief.

Presiding Judge J.D. Langley oversaw the entire evidentiary hearing process and delivered his recommendation to let Reed’s conviction stand and not give him a new trial. That recommendation will be sent to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which will decide whether or not to grant Reed a new trial.

The hearing came 23 years after Reed’s original conviction for the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites. He’s since spent more than two decades on death row.

“The Court has extensively considered the entire record of this case from its trial through the 10 day evidentiary hearing, at which the Court was able to observe witnesses and assess their credibility concerning [Reed’s] claims. This Court recommends that all relief sought by the Applicant be denied,” according to Langley’s findings of fact and conclusions of law recommendations submitted in Bastrop on Oct. 31.

In a statement, Jane Pucher, an attorney with the Innocence Project, said the group will present their findings to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and argued new witnesses added credibility to Reed’s claims of innocence.

“We look forward to presenting Mr. Reed’s case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. If a new jury heard the overwhelming evidence of Rodney Reed’s innocence, it would have reasonable doubts. Convicted by an all-white jury, Mr. Reed has spent 23 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Many highly credible witnesses testified at the evidentiary hearing that Mr. Reed and Stacey Stites knew each other and were intimately involved. Many credible witnesses also testified that Ms. Stites’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, was violent and controlling and had threatened to hurt her if he discovered she was unfaithful. Nationally recognized experts have completely debunked the forensic case against Mr. Reed and even the State’s pathology expert has agreed that central points at trial were false. We hope the Court of Criminal Appeals recognizes that he should be given a new trial.”

Jane Pucher, senior staff attorney, Innocence Project

Debra Oliver, Stites’ sister, released a statement to KXAN and through the Stacey’s Avengers advocacy group. She criticized a lack of “tangible evidence” surrounding an alleged relationship between Stites and Reed.

“In 25 years, no tangible evidence of a relationship between Stacey and the defendant has ever materialized. That is because no relationship ever existed,” Oliver said in the statement. “There are no photos, no gifts, no phone records, no receipts, and no corroboration by those that knew Stacey best.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in November 2019 stayed Reed’s scheduled execution date, remanding the case back to a Bastrop trial court for “further factual development,” according to court documents. Reed and his defense team have continually upheld his claims of innocence in Stites’ murder, citing new evidence and witness testimony to support their claims.

Stacey Stites_560705
A photo of Stacey Stites (KXAN photo)

During the evidentiary hearing, the defense brought forth new witnesses who testified of an ongoing affair between Reed and Stites. The defense also presented new forensic experts who argued against the time of death window provided in the original trial, as well as challenged previous analyzations of signs of decomposition and physical traits on Stites’ body at the crime scene.

From the state, legal counsel brought forward memory expert witnesses who testified against the validity of dated memories, challenging new witness testimonies presented by the defense. The state also called to the stand medical experts who testified that physical markers found on Stites’ body when she was discovered indicated sexual assault.

MURDER IN THE LOST PINES: The Rodney Reed Case

Langley’s findings

The Court of Criminal Appeals remanded Reed’s case on Nov. 15, 2019, back to Bastrop County district court for the evidentiary hearing on three grounds: Reed’s actual innocence, false testimony against Reed at his trial and a Brady Claim.

Under the Brady doctrine, prosecutors are required to turn over any evidence that could be favorable to the defense. Reed’s defense said that did not happen at his trial, claiming three sheriff’s deputies were aware of favorable evidence that was not provided by the state.

According to Reed’s defense, former Bastrop County Deputy Sheriff Richard Derleth was told by an “unknown” H-E-B employee that Stites and Fennell fought. Another former deputy sheriff named Charles Wayne Fletcher knew of relationship problems between Fennell and Stites, and he heard Fennell speak of his fiancé having an affair with a Black man. Also, Reed’s defense said they were not made aware a former Lee County Deputy Sheriff Jim Clampit assert he heard Fennell say Stites “got what she deserved” at her funeral, according to the court filing.

Reed’s defense said those pieces of evidence would have changed whether Fennell testified at the original trial, and they could have “impeached Fennell” with that evidence. Langley disagreed.

The court found the recollections of all three deputies “suspect,” in part because they waited years to come forward with the new information.

Langley found Derleth’s recollection “suspect” because he did not testify at the hearing, did not know the source of what he heard and there was no evidence he was part of the investigation into Stites’ death. Fletcher’s testimony was not credible because he “waited decades” to come forward, admitted he was influenced to come forward by his wife who had researched the case, and believed in a conspiracy theory in the case. Clampit was not credible because he had improperly testified while in uniform and had committed perjury, among other reasons, according to the court findings.  

Reed’s defense also argued prosecutors presented false testimony at trial, when Fennell testified he did not kill Stites, did not know Reed and that he had a good relationship with Stites.

The judge said he found Fennell’s testimony “credible and gives it full and proper weight,” according to the court filing. Langley wrote that Fennell’s explanations for his conduct and decisions around the time of Stites’ murder were credible, and he found Fennell truthful when he testified he did not kill Stites, according to the court filing.

The judge also credited several of the state’s witnesses who testified they knew Fennell and Stites had a good relationship. Conversely, the judge found a number of the defense witnesses “uncredible,” including former deputies Fletcher and Clampit and many former H-E-B employees in Bastrop.

Several of Stites’ former coworkers at the Bastrop H-E-B testified they had some knowledge or recollection of a relationship between Stites and Reed or believed Stites was afraid of Fennell or the couple had a troubled relationship. The judge said many of those witnesses were not credible because they didn’t come forward with that information near the time of the murder, and, after more than two decades, their memories were spotty. Also, some of the defense’s witnesses relied on hearsay, according to Langley.

One of those former H-E-B coworkers, Alicia Slater, testified she spoke with Stites in the grocery store breakroom and Stites said she was “not excited to get married because she was ‘sleeping with a Black man named Rodney.”’ Slater also said Stites told her she was scared Fennell might find out, and she had be careful not to let her fiancé learn of the affair, according to Langley’s findings.

Langley found Slater uncredible, noting she did not share the information with law enforcement, and her statements contradicted themselves—she initially said did not want to be involved in the case then later took a monetary benefit to appear on the Dr. Phil show and make statements on the case, according to the court filing.

Langley noted most of the former H-E-B coworkers were aware of a $50,000 reward offered by the grocery store for help in the case, yet those witnesses did not come forward after the murder with information that could have helped them claim the money.

On the grounds of actual innocence, Langley found the defense’s allegations “wanting” and said their previous theories on Stites’ time of death, alternative killers and possible co-conspirators were inconsistent and diminished the “credibility of (Reed’s) actual innocence theory,” according to the filing.

Reed’s defense has brought forward pathology experts to rebut forensics used by the state at trial, including forensic evidence that showed Stites was sexually assaulted and when she died. In court filings, the defense has argued the state’s time-of-death estimate is flawed, that Stites died earlier than the state claims and the true time of death places Fennell with Stites when she was killed.

Langley said the defense has brought different theories on the time of death and those inconsistencies diminish the credibility of their claims.

Dr. Roberto Bayardo, former Travis County chief medical examiner, conducted Stites’ autopsy and testified at trial in 1998. In 2012, Reed’s defense obtained a declaration from Bayardo in which they said he recanted several portions of his trial testimony. Langley found Bayardo’s declaration did not withdraw key points of his trial testimony, according to his findings.

Two former prison inmates testified Fennell confessed to killing Stites and made racist remarks about her having an affair with a Black man. Langley found both former prisoners unreliable and not credible.

One of those former prisoners, Arthur Snow, had inconsistencies between facts in his testimony and sworn affidavit, had been convicted on 19 criminal charges including forgery, became belligerent during court questioning and, while testifying for the defense, invoked his Fifth Amendment right to silence. Snow said he was a former Aryan Brotherhood prison gang member and Fennell came to him requesting protection, according to the court findings and his affidavit.

Langley found Reed had not “proven by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted him of capital murder” and had not proven he was “actually innocent.”

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