Texas Governor Greg Abbott has less than two months to decide whether he will stop the scheduled execution of a man who has claimed for 21 years he did not murder his secret lover.
The real killer was the woman’s fiancé, a rookie police officer named Jimmy Fennell who became so enraged after discovering the illicit affair, he murdered Stacey Stites - at least this is what Rodney Reed and his supporters believe. And it isn’t a far reach considering Fennell later served a 10-year sentence for raping and kidnapping a woman in his custody while on duty in an unrelated case when he was a Georgetown police officer. He was released last year.
Fennell was a Giddings police officer in 1996 when he was investigated by his own police department and cleared as a suspect even though half of the murder weapon, the braided belt used to strangle Stites, was found near Fennell’s truck but never tested for DNA evidence. The other half of the belt was found near Stites’ body.
Reed was convicted after his semen was found on Stites, but he says that was because they were in a consensual sexual relationship. Given Reed is a black man and Stites was a white woman, he hesitated before disclosing that information to authorities of the tiny Texas town.
Reed insists though that a simple DNA test of the evidence found at the crime scene would prove Stites’ real killer was her fiance, but his prosecutors refuse to comply. They claim because the evidence was never properly stored, it’s too contaminated to accurately test for possible DNA.
“We never touched it,” Rodney’s brother Roderick said at a rally in Dallas last Friday. “So that’s not an excuse. Test it, let’s see what shows up and then we’ll go from there.”
But from the Bastrop County District Court all the way to the United States Supreme Court, judges have consistently ruled against getting the murder weapon tested because it would be an “unreasonable delay,” according to Judge Doug Shaver.
“You are attempting to take away my brother’s life for a crime he didn’t commit, but you’re not giving him all the process and avenues to defend himself,” Roderick said. “You’re closing doors. It’s just like ‘they say you did it so you did it, you dyin’.”
Surprisingly, the Constitution doesn’t require crime scene evidence to be DNA tested before a suspect is convicted. So theoretically, a jealous cop with a vengeance could commit cold-blooded murder and someone else could take the fall for it since having scientific proof of a person being linked to a crime is optional.
And according to Roderick, that’s exactly what happened.
Stites used to work at an H-E-B, a Texas chain grocery store, where she would share her woes with coworkers like anyone would. Alicia Slater was one of those coworkers. She eventually moved out to California but was hard-pressed to come back to Texas to confirm in a 2014 affidavit that Stites didn’t want to marry Fennell - she was head over heels in love with a black man.
And Roderick says Fennell was a known racist with a history of police brutality so how could he not be a suspect? But Fennell has contested any doubts that he was involved with Stites’ death despite the unflattering amount of evidence stacked against him. Reed’s attorneys even allege Fennell threatened Stites multiple times and specified he’d use a belt to kill her if she ever cheated on him.
And she was.
Stites and Reed had sex the night before she was killed which explains his semen found on her. This was the argument prosecutors used to pin rape and murder on Reed in 1998 and he has been sitting on Death Row since.
Fennell even failed a polygraph test on the question, “Did you strangle Stacey Stites?” Even more chilling, Stites’ autopsy confirmed she was strangled to death.
“They constructed a Jim Crow trial...for my brother to take this fall,” Roderick said.
But after a relentless campaign consisting of an official Rodney Reed campaign website, a clemency letter, and community support, Reed’s 2015 execution came to a standstill - his case was returned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Although Reed evaded death for the time being, his father died the next month.
The appellate court rejected his latest appeal though this past June so for now, Reed is still scheduled to be executed on November 20.
The Case Against Jimmy Fennell
The evidence found near Stites’ dead body in April, 1996, included a name tag, shirt, two beer cans and the belt she was strangled with. Only half of the belt was found with Stites’ body though. The other half was found next to her fiance’s truck - the same truck Fennell immediately sold after it was released back into his custody after investigators swabbed it for DNA and bodily fluids.
Besides the small trace of semen found on her body, there was no other physical evidence that linked Reed to Stite’s murder. Reed’s attorneys are still fighting for DNA testing of the other items found at the crime scene but have received pushback from all sides.
“In a lot of ways it was a way for them to claim they agreed to some DNA testing without actually risking a DNA result that could actually identify who committed the crime,” Reed’s attorney, Bryce Benjet of the Innocence Project, told The Appeal.
His legal team believes the murder weapon and other items are riddled with Fennell’s DNA, which isn’t hard to believe considering his statements on his whereabouts the night before Stites’ body was found were inconsistent. Fennell claimed he was with Stites all night, but a former colleague, Curtis Davis, gave a statement that completely contradicted Fennell’s. Davis said Fennell told him he went out drinking that night.
Remember the two beer cans found next to Stites’ body? Those cans tested positive for the DNA of two police officer, but it was never reported to the defense at the time of Reed’s trial. One of the officers, Ed Salmela, died four months after the investigation began. His death was ruled a suicide, but his brother told the Austin Statesman he doesn't believe that's true.
Cops also didn’t bother to search Stites and Fennell’s home after her body was discovered – a possible conspiratorial move to protect one of their own.
Other important evidence of Reed’s innocence were also withheld during the original trial including an eye witness and expert witness testimony. Prosecutors also failed to call an alibi or one of the multiple witnesses to confirm there was an affair between Stites and Reed. The lack of exonerating information led to an all-white jury, a jury that did not reflect Reed, finding him guilty of raping and murdering Stites.
“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,” Benjet said.
Withholding evidence by the prosecution in a trial violates the Brady doctrine. It’s a rule that requires prosecutors to turn over all evidence that might exonerate the defendant during trial. Consequences for not doing so could include a vacated conviction, but the only action this violation brought was another hearing that shed light on more exonerating testimonies.
Fennell was questioned during a 2017 hearing about his inconsistent statements but pleaded the Fifth, refusing to self-incriminate.
The original medical examiner, Dr. Roberto Bayardo, who first claimed Reed raped Stites and the semen found on her was no older than 24 hours, also spoke at the hearing. Not only did he recant those statements, but he also said there was “absolutely no evidence” of rape.
Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist, testified that, “In my opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, [Stites] was dead before midnight” the night her body was found. Other forensic experts also submitted affidavits stating the original time of death was inaccurate, which would make it impossible for Reed to have murdered Stites.
Letters to the Governor
In the clemency letter addressed to Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, it states:
“In 2013, you supported a bill for pre-conviction DNA testing saying, ‘Texans may disagree about the death penalty, but one thing all Texans can and should agree upon is that no innocent person should be executed in Texas’...I am asking that you stand by your words and stop the execution of an innocent man...I am asking that you spare the life of Rodney Reed.”
Stites’ cousin also wrote to Abbott on behalf of her family saying, “Over the years, I have begun to believe in the innocence of Rodney Reed.”
She goes on to write that she became aware of the “overwhelming” mistakes in the investigation and “overwhelming” evidence that was overlooked.
“Stacey deserves to have the correct person convicted for her murder. Our family...cannot rest until all evidence has been tested and examined...Stacey deserves justice and I, as well as the family, feel she has not gotten it...I am aware that my aunt Carol stated in a sealed affidavit that Jimmy Fennel was a violent man. These sentiments are shared among many family members.”
Exposure for the Reed Justice Initiative
On top of local and national news stations covering the development of the case, network channel A&E aired an episode titled Dead Man Talking that highlighted Reed’s case in 2015. This episode led to the development of new forensic evidence that was heard in the 2017 hearings. Kevin Gannon, former New York Police Department detective, was featured on the show and has since become one of Reed’s loyal supporters.
We caught up with Roderick at the Dallas rally on Friday where posters like the ones below filled the downtown streets. Supporters stood in solidarity while spreading Reed's message, like they have done numerous times throughout Texas, even in front of Governor Abbott's mansion.
Roderick, pictured left.
Reed’s family is getting a two part segment on the Dr. Phil Show show next week to continue spreading awareness before Reed’s biological clock stops short.