A setback for Rodney Reed

By: Lily Hughes

Days before the Christmas holiday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied relief in the case of Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed, leaving his family and supporters shocked and devastated.

Sandra Reed, Rodney's mother, decried the court's decision, saying, "A great injustice has been done today. I looked to the court to consider all the new developments. And with all these developments, how could they deny my son?"

Rodney was accused of raping and murdering Stacey Stites in 1996, and was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998. Rodney is an African-American man, Stacey, a white woman. A number of witnesses corroborated Reed's claims that he and Stites were having a consensual sexual relationship, although these witnesses were not called to the stand during his trial.

Much of the evidence presented by the defense, both new and old, points toward another suspect: former Georgetown police officer Jimmy Fennell. Fennell's recent conviction on sexual assault and kidnapping charges further substantiates the defense's theory.

Fennell was engaged to Stacey at the time of her death. He failed two lie detector tests when asked, "Did you strangle Stacey Stites?" Fennell's truck, which Stacey was driving at the time of her murder, contained only her and Fennell's fingerprints.

In the appeals court decision, a vast array of forensic evidence, eyewitness testimony and alibi witnesses pointing away from Rodney and linking Fennell to the crime is dismissed.

"Although this new evidence may indeed arouse a healthy suspicion that Fennell had some involvement in Stacey's death, we are not convinced that Reed has shown by a preponderance of the evidence that no reasonable juror, confronted with this evidence, would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," the CCA wrote in its ruling on the case.

In other words, the court concluded that Rodney did not meet the "gateway" requirement for an innocence claim.

New witnesses were presented during the appeal who confirmed the affair between Stacey and Rodney. However, the court seems to regard these witnesses, the alibi witnesses and other witnesses presented by the defense as unreliable, while considering most of the evidence presented by the prosecution as wholly reliable.

The CCA acted on the recommendation of Judge Reva Towslee-Corbett, the daughter of the judge in Reed's original trial. In its opinion, the Court acknowledged this bias toward the prosecution by Towslee-Corbett, yet they still adopted her findings virtually wholesale.

The court also accuses Rodney's defense of not providing a "coherent theory of innocence." But as Rodney's attorney Bryce Benjet pointed out to the Austin Chronicle, "What is frustrating is that every time we learn a new fact, [the court] won't just let you go tell them about it. They require you to file a new appeal...They force us to proceed in this fashion, and then say that we haven't presented this in a coherent fashion?"

Rodney's lawyers are also frustrated that the court has yet to rule on a few important claims related to their theory about Jimmy Fennell's involvement. "There is a coherent story here--that it is at least as likely that Fennell [killed Stacey], if not more so," said Benjet.

After a visit with Rodney, Sandra Reed described her son as "in good spirits." She said that Rodney felt better about his chances in federal court, and that he was keeping a positive attitude, despite this recent setback.

On December 22, Rodney's birthday, the CEDP held a protest in response to the court's decision. Twenty-five people turned out to the State Capitol byilding for a spirited rally, with chants of "Shame on you, CCA, Rodney should be free today!" and "No justice, no peace, Rodney Reed must be released!"

We will continue to pressure the courts to grant Rodney a new trial.

To obtain an award-winning DVD documentary on this case, State v. Reed, contact the CEDP office at Julien@nodeathpenalty.org