Rodney's Case Update

Tales from death row: Justice for Rodney Reed

By: Caitlin Adams

As of today, Rodney has been wrongfully imprisoned 5,786 days. Death row is in the midst of the first lockdown of 2013. Thankfully, Rodney did not have any belongings confiscated during the recent shakedown. Rodney just had his cell changed, so he no longer has his "sunset" view. He told me at our visit on February 1 that he already misses his view and his red tail hawk visits. He is now housed on B pod, second tier, cell 79—a corner cell with no view.

At present, Rodney's case remains with federal district Judge Yeakel for reconsideration. Rodney's defense teams have presented their salient filings, the state has responded, and the defense has presented its final filings at the district level.  Several important court decisions were rendered during this filing period that have possible direct bearing on Rodney's case. The first being the U. S Supreme Court decision to hear the Trevino v Thaler case (11-10189), which is of major importance for criminal law.  The petition for Texas death-row inmate Carlos Trevino argued that lower federal courts have denied prisoners like him the opportunity to test their convictions and death sentences in federal court on grounds that their defense lawyers were deficient during state court proceedings.  

In the Supreme Court’s decision last March in Martinez v. Ryan, the Court made a significant exception to the long-standing rule that a state prisoner cannot pursue a challenge in federal habeas court if the inmate failed to bring up the challenge first in state court. In Texas, the Martinez ruling has essentially been ignored by the lower federal courts because apparently Texas "sometimes" will allow a state prisoner to bring up an ineffective lawyer claim prior to a post-conviction proceeding. The fact that that "sometimes" is murky may be the impetus behind SCOTUS agreeing to hear the case. Rodney's Martinez claim is a very important element of his request for relief.  Rodney's initial habeas attorney, Bill Barbish, has written an affidavit that has been submitted to the court stating that he was ineffective in representing Rodney in his initial habeas appeal; this has been initially dismissed by Judge Yeakel, basically because Martinez has been dismissed summarily in lower federal courts as it regards Texas. So, Trevino v Thaler could be extremely important for the course of Rodney's case from here.

The recent granting of a new trial to Cathy Lynn Henderson by the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals has also opened some doors for Rodney.  This ruling states that when inaccurate, outdated forensic science is used at trial, it denies the defendant a fair trial. This is a key and critical issue in Rodney's case, especially with the recent declaration by former medical examiner, Robert Bayardo (who was the prosecution's primary forensic expert) that the state "misconstrued his testimony" and that he had made "errors" in his evaluation of the evidence. Judge Yeakel had called Bayardo's declaration "highly suspect" and dismissed it when he denied Rodney relief. The defense not only had Bayardo's declaration, but also the testimony of two forensic experts, Drs. Riddick and Singer, to substantiate the fact that the DNA evidence put forth by the prosecution was not scientifically valid. In these most recent filings, the defense added another highly credentialed forensic expert's testimony as well, Dr. Joseph Warren, to further bolster the reliability that the state got it wrong.  Another prosecution witness, Meghan Clement, testified that in her experience examining rape kits (which is not directly about the evidence in Rodney’s case), she had not seen sperm survive more than 24 hours. Her specific testimony was rebutted by Dr. Warren; Ms. Clement has subsequently stated that if she were called to testify, she would state: 1) the processing of a rape kit can damage sperm, which could explain why in her scope of practice she did not encounter intact sperm after 24 hours. 2) Her testimony was not based on the forensic literature.

The third and final forensic "expert" who testified for the state as a crime scene technician, Karen Blakely, did not have the credentials to testify as an expert per Dr. Warren. When Ms. Blakely was contacted about this issue, she declined to comment.

Another important element in the recent filings has been addressing an "omission" by every state and federal court that has reviewed Rodney's case up to this point—an affidavit by James Robertson, testifying that Rodney and Stacey's had a consensual relationship. This affidavit has been presented for over 10 years now and it seems that the courts have simply ignored it. Mr. Robertson knew both Rodney and Stacey independently of each other—he knew Stacey from Smithville High School and Rodney from the neighborhood. The critical element here is independently. Rodney's defense team has specifically drawn the court's attention to this affidavit as well as another affidavit from Mr. Robertson's wife, verifying that the affidavit was written by her husband and that he had spoken to her regarding Rodney's case and the contents of the affidavit on numerous occasions. Mr. Robertson is an active duty marine who was unavailable to respond when two law students affiliated with Rodney's defense went to verify the validity of the affidavit.  Every other witness that knew of Rodney's relationship with Stacey has been dismissed by the courts as not credible, so this testimony is essential and critical to establishing that Rodney and Stacey were involved romantically, which completely destroys the prosecution theory of a stranger abduction, rape, and murder.

There in a nutshell, in layperson terms, is where Rodney's case is as of today, February 4, 2013.  The Supreme Court, in the Martinez ruling, swept away some of the procedural obstacles to true due process; in the Trevino ruling they have the opportunity to put Texas on notice  (although we all know how Texas reacts to being put on notice, Ruiz v Estelle comes to mind).  If Judge Yeakel denies Rodney relief again, the 5th Circuit is the next hurdle on the horizon.