Rodney Reed’s Case: Is He Innocent?
Rodney Reed was convicted of murdering a Giddings woman, Stacey Stites, by a Bastrop County jury in May of 1998.
The murder of Stites happened just two years earlier in April of 1996. Reed was arrested a year later in 1997, due to a match on his DNA from his semen that was located on Stites’ body.
With the DNA match alone, the prosecution stated that Reed sodomized, assaulted, raped, and ended up strangling Stites, even though there was no other physical evidence besides the DNA match that connected Reed to this heinous crime.
Lisa Tanner, a special prosecutor for the Texas Attorney General’s Office, was assisting the Bastrop D.A. Charles Pennick’s team. The prosecution team argued to the jurors that the case was as simple as it can get: The DNA was the “Cinderella’s slipper” in this crime. That the genetic profile could only possibly match one person and that one person was indeed Reed. Therefore, Tanner stated that Reed was, in fact, the murderer in this case on the sole discretion of the undeniable physical connection.
But what happens if it was not that simple as the prosecution made it out to be?
What if there are more damning elements in the case that were overlooked like the fact that Stacey Stites was a white woman, and Stites’ was engaged to a Giddings police officer, Jimmy Fennell Jr. while on the other hand, Rodney Reed was a black man. Would this small element of the case cause an influence on this investigation and trial where it could persuade the outcome?
As of late, Reed is on death row in Livingston. Reed and his defenders still to this day continue to insist that his conviction was not justice whatsoever. That the prosecution failed to investigate the entire case fully and that they either did not look at the alternative suspects or ALL the physical evidence before hounding on Reed. The defenders of Reed even went as far to state that the prosecution withheld some of the most crucial evidence that could have exonerated Reed during the trial.
After a careful review of the trial records, there was much more information that did not make it to the courtroom, unfortunately. Many people want to know why? Could this have helped exonerate Reed from the get-go?
But one question remains? Who really killed Stacey Stites?
Theories of the Crime
At Stacey Stites death, she was 19. She was a resident of the Giddings County. Stites disappeared during the early morning hours of April 23, 1996. Jimmy Fennell Jr., a Giddings Police Officer, stated that Stites left their apartment they shared together to take out his red Chevy pickup truck to work at the local HEB in Bastrop for her 3:30 am shift. Later that morning, Fennell’s red Chevy pickup truck was found parked at the Bastrop High School. Shortly after 3 pm that same afternoon, a pedestrian happened to come across Stites’ body. Stites’ body was located just off County Road 1441 in a wooded area. It was just about seven miles outside of the Bastrop city limits. Stites was half-dressed, sprawled, and had a ligature mark that was embedded in her neck.
For a year after Stites murder, the police investigators had over 20 suspects that they eliminated during this time. It seemed they were going to be looking for a needle in a haystack in this case.
It was not until April 4, 1997, when the police investigators arrested then 29year-old Rodney Reed, a resident of Bastrop, and charged him with the murder and rape of Stacey Stites. The police investigators came to this conclusion after they were able to match Reed’s DNA, which happened to be obtained during another sexual assault case back in 1995 to the semen DNA that was found on Stites’ body at the crime scene.
Rodney Reed’s Case or Lack Thereof
Then in May of 1998, Reed was tried on two counts of capital murder. Reed was the first case in nearly 50 years that was on capital murder in Bastrop. Reed was later convicted and sentenced to death.
Prosecutors were successful in saying that during Stites’ early morning commute to work, Reed was able to force his way into Stites’ red Chevy pickup truck, while he was on foot without having to use any weapons. This is where Reed was able to sodomize, rape, and strangle Stites with her braided leather belt, she had on. Only to dump her body in the wooded area and leave the red Chevy pickup truck at the local high school.
The prosecutors told the jurors this theory of the crime all while presenting one piece of evidence: Reed’s semen DNA. There was no other evidence that connected Reed to this heinous crime, not on the body, in the crime scene, or even in the pickup truck.
In the defenders opening statements to the court, they stated they could easily explain how Reed’s DNA was found in Stites’ body. Behind Jimmy Fennell Jr. back, the Stites and Reed were having a sexual affair with one another. A relationship that was not only dangerous but also very scandalous in this small Texas town. They further went to explain that this case they had in front of them had interracial dating, and how they decided to keep this a hush-hush affair.
The defenders also stated that the only evidenced that Stites was even awake in the early morning hours of April 23, 1996, to go to work, was that of her then-fiance, Jimmy Fennell Jr. The defenders told the jurors that they would demonstrate that Reed was, in fact, having a secret affair with Stites and that Fennell somehow found out about the pair and he had a motive to kill his then-fiancee.
But as the trial went on, the defense could not live up to their promise. They did not have all the crucial evidence that they needed to do so. Even the court transcripts showed that Reed’s defense attorneys defeated themselves before they could begin.
For instance, several people were readily available and prepared to testify that Stites and Reed were secretly in love with each other. Unfortunately, Reed’s defense attorneys only put two of them on the stand. The defense attorneys ignored the remainder of the witnesses that could have helped the case against Reed and established an alibi for that night when the murder happened.
Not to mention the defense attorneys that Reed had failed to even remotely challenge any of the critical evidence the prosecutors put forth. Especially the medical testimony that was provided to the jurors by the Robert Bayardo, Travis County Medical Examiner. Bayardo stated that Stites was raped when she was murdered within the same hour that she supposedly left to go to work, which was around 3 am. Reed’s defense attorneys did not have any medical experts of their own to challenge this theory of Bayardo’s opinions or even to provide insight or even present their own theory of what happened.
But Reed’s defense team stated that there was one vital piece of physical evidence that they never even knew existed until much, much later. The state DPS lab report, which was dated on May 13, 1998, analyzed the DNA that was taken off two beer cans that were near Stites’s body at the crime scene. For many reasons that were not satisfactorily explained to anyone, was never given to Reed’s defense team before or during the trial.
The state DPS lab reported that this analysis excluded Reed completely, but brought up two potential suspects, Ed Salmela, former Bastrop police officer along with David Hall, a former Giddings police officer. David Hall was a very close friend and even neighbor to both Fennell and Stites.
As of current Ed Salmela is now dead. It was ruled a suicide, while David Hall is still very much alive and well.
If Reed’s defense team was aware of this vital piece of DNA evidence, they would have been able to provide a better defense for Reed. They would have had an adequate explanation of how Stites’ then-fiance could have traveled from the city of Giddings to the city of Bastrop and make it back home prior to 6:45 am without the use of his red Chevy pickup truck before HEB called stating that Stites never made it work that morning in April.
So, it’s as simple as Fennell could have also had help in this crime as well.
Then in 2001, after Reed discovered this new DNA analysis, as the newest document in his case file, it was not until Harold Townslee, a Bastrop District Judge granted an evidentiary hearing. However, the outcome of this hearing was that this new evidence that was unearthed was still not enough to create any reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors.
In February of 2002, Reeds subsequent state habeas appeal was denied as well. The state habeas appeal was denied since the justices ruled that Bill Barbisch; Reed’s court-appointed attorney did not file the appeal by the deadline.
But, if this new evidentiary detail was not enough to create a reasonable doubt in the conviction of Reed, the case records also stated that Jimmy Fennell Jr. failed the li-detector tests twice when he was being questioned about the crime at hand. Fennell was displaying deception when he was asked if he strangled his then-fiancée Stacey Stites.
Prime Suspect, Jimmy Fennell Jr.
At 3:30 am on April 23, 1996, Stacey Stites was scheduled to start her work shift at the local HEB in Bastrop. According to Stacey Stites mother, Carol Stites, Stacey took the early morning work shift, so she can earn an additional $0.50 an hour. This added money was going to then help Stites pay for her wedding dress, which was at the time on layaway.
Carol Stites stated that Stacey Stites was certainly in love with her then-fiancé, Jimmy Fennell Jr., who was just 23 years old at the time. Fennell was working for the Giddings police department.
Carole Stites testified in the courtroom that on April 22, just the night before the murder, both Fennell and her daughter were laughing and having a good old time, as they were talking to their apartment, which was in the same building as Stacey’s mother, Carol’s.
Fennell even testified that his then-fiancé, Stacey went to sleep before he did, but when Stacey’s alarm went off, he did not wake up or even when she left the apartment to go to work, which would have been around 3 am.
It was not until 6:45 am, when an HEB employee called Stacey’s mother, Carol to say that Stacey did not show up for work that morning. Carol then called Stacey’s fiancé, Fennell, who headed downstairs to Carol’s apartment to grab her keys, since Stacey had their set. However, Stacey’s keys have never been recovered.
But before the HEB employee called Stacey’s mother, Fennells red Chevy pickup truck was already found. The truck was found around 5:20 am. It was parked at the Bastrop High school. However, the truck was found prior to Stites being reported as a missing person. It was not until 8 am when the investigators made this crucial connection. Then at 3 pm, Stites’ body was discovered in the wooded area.
By the time Stites body was found L.R. “Rocky” Wardlow, a Texas Ranger was notified. Wardlow was later dubbed the lead investigator on this multijurisdictional case. Wardlow testified and stated that Fennell became instantly one of the prime suspects in this case, but Wardlow then later stated that the four to five police interrogations with Fennell, were adversarial at best.
Yet when it came down to Wardlow’s investigative report, there were many reports that were filed by these investigators from the Bastrop Police Department along with the Bastrop Sheriff’s Office, which failed to confirm the intensity of the case, which stated that Fennell was under heavy scrutiny.
Stites’ then-fiancee, Fennell was interviewed on April 23, by Ronnie Duncan, who was then the Bastrop Police Chief. Fennell was then interviewed two days later April 25, by Wardlow himself.
Then on April 29, Fennell stopped into the Bastrop Sheriff’s Office to talk to investigators about some items he noticed that were out of place inside his red Chevy pickup truck. On this very same day, which happened to be just six days after the murder of Stites’, they returned the pickup truck back over to Fennell, who was still the “prime suspect” according to Wardlow.
As a result of all of this, Reed’s defense attorneys could not confirm any of these DPS test results or were able to even collect any of their own forensic evidence from the vehicle.
On October 3, investigators met with Fennell once again. This time investigators were ready to admin9ister a polygraph exam. This is where Wardlow stated that Fennell was very deceptive on many of the relevant questions.
Finally, then on December 18, investigators again met with Fennell for the last time. This time was just like the previous meet, where they administered a second polygraph exam. This polygraph exam came back with very similar results as the first one did. Fennell was deceptive on many of the relevant questions that he was asked. Specifically, the question if he [Fennell] did or did not strangle his then-fiancé Stacey Stites.
Wardlow then noted that Fennell was interviewed right after he failed the second polygraph exam. Fennell maintained that he had no such involvement or even knowledge in the case of Stites’ death. Fennell stated that he failed the polygraph exam because he was still so distraught over Stites’ death. Fennell proceeded to ask for an attorney.
According to police records, he was never interviewed after this last meeting in December.
Wardlow’s report consisted of many lengthy accounts on the process of elimination for the other prime suspects. But, oddly enough, there is no accounts on how Fennell made it off the list, or if he truly did.
This omission is very apparent to Reed’s defense team. They are wondering if anyone spoke to the friends of Fennell concerning where he was during the late hours of April 22, or in the early morning hours of April 23.
Wardlow stated that he talked to Stacey Stites mother, Carol Stites and even Fennell’s neighbor and best friend, David Hall. Both could not confirm Fennell’s testimony. However, when Wardlow was questioned by the prosecution, he stated that he could not come up with any dispute against Fennell’s rendition.
According to Jimmy Brown, an Austin attorney, who happened to be one of Reed’s first attorneys until the family could no longer afford him, he states that investigators did not try hard enough to discredit Fennell. Brown stated that it was evidently clear that Fennell failed the polygraph exam, not once, but two times. How could they ever NOT consider him the prime suspect? Unfortunately, Brown never received a satisfactory answer.
Wardlow stated in court that the investigators never decided to request any search warrants for Fennel and Stites shared apartment because they believed it would lack probable cause.
When other various law enforcement officers were interviewed by the Chronicle, they stated that either getting permission from Fennell or obtaining a search warrant to search this shared space should have been done, since this was the last known place where someone had physically seen Stacey Stites alive. Law enforcement officers thought it was crazy that the shared apartment was not treated as a crime scene.
Brown stated that the failure to search the shared apartment was just another fault in the investigator’s case.
Brown also stated that the DPS was not finished with all the forensic testing’s of Fennell’s red Chevy pickup truck before they released the vehicle back to him. Brown explained that the defense never got any time to complete their own forensic analysis of the truck.
Jimmy Fennell is now a Georgetown police officer. He could not be bothered for a comment. However, Fennell mother stated that she does not understand why questions about his then-fiancé Stites’ murder case keeps coming up. His mother stated that Fennell has been trying to put this behind him and move on, but this keeps coming up.
However, with the lack of investigation of Fennell, it was apparent this was going to be moot in March of 1997. This was when David Board of the Bastrop Police Department brought up a 1995 sexual assault case to Wardlow’s attention.
1995 Sexual Assault Case
This 1995 sexual assault case happened back in May of 1995. It was between Caroline Rivas, an ex-girlfriend of Reed. Rivas told a social worker that Reed had forced her to have sex with him. This social worker then phoned the police. The police collected a DNA sample from Rivas’ bed, which in return matched the DNA of Reed. Reed was telling the investigators at the time that the sex was consensual between him and Rivas. Rivas later declined to testify in front of the grand jury, which led to the charges being dropped against Reed.
Now a few years later, investigators were following up with that old lead. This led investigators to match the DNA that was found in Stites’ body to Rodney Reed. In less than a month from that time, Reed was arrested and charged with two counts of capital murder.
Reed’s Character in Question & Witnesses
After Reed was arrested and charged with the murder of Stites’ Sandra Reed, Rodney Reed’s mother recalled a conversation she had with Reed about two years prior. Reed’s mother, Sandra recounted how her son was always dating a few women at one time, but during a conversation they had in October of 1995, he stated that he is currently dating a girl and this girl is engaged to a cop.
Sandra told Reed that he should not be caught with that girl, because of what could happen to him, if the cop were to find out about their affair. Sandra thought that was the end of that, but boy was she wrong.
As odd as it may sound, Sandra was not the only person who put a connection between Reed and Stacey prior to Stacey’s murder. There are court records that display at least 10 other people publicly identified to the court as witnesses to this secret relationship either by affidavit or during Reed’s trial.
Brown stated that everyone knew of Stacey’s and Rodney’s secret relationship. It was the talk of the town due to a white woman having sexual relationships with a black man in Bastrop. Then later she’s found dead, and there is no question about who truly did it.
But during this trial, the defense attorneys failed to call on many of the numerous witnesses that were ready to testify about the pair’s secret relationship. Sandra was thinking that the attorneys had this case in the bag since they had so many witnesses together along with the affidavits as well. But that feeling soon changed to fear when Sandra realized that the defense team was not using the witnesses. That the defense team was not clearing anything up.
However, one of the vital witnesses would have been, Chris Aldridge, who happens to be a cousin of Reed. Aldridge could not only state that Reed and Stites were together before the murder, but also provide a pretty solid airtight alibi for Reed for the night of April 23. The alibi was that Aldridge and Reed were at the Bastrop Community Center that was near Reed’s family home because they had to work the very next morning. They were part of the crew that was remodeling the local Super S store. They were together until 3 to 4 am, when they went home to shower, eat, and go to work.
Over two separate affidavits, Aldridge explained the other encounters that he had with Reed in the months leading up to Stites’ death. Aldridge explained that two men were walking together, stopped at a Bastrop Sheriff’s Office patrol car. He stated that one person was Jimmy Fennell, even though he was not in his Giddings police uniform. He stated that Fennell at this time knew about Rodney and Stacey and that Rodney was going to pay for this.
Aldridge was summoned to appear in the courtroom, but Reed’s attorney told Aldridge that his testimony was no longer needed. Reed’s attorney went up to Judge Townslee and then proceeded to tell Aldridge he was no longer needed. Aldridge never got the chance to tell his side of the story.
However, Aldridge was not alone here. There were many other acquaintances that had seen both Stites and Reed together at the Bastrop HEB. At least two-family friends of Reeds even said they saw the couple together at their respective homes as well.
These potential witnesses were more than just family and friends of Reed as well. One potential witness was James Robertson. Robertson stated that he saw Rodney in Jail while he was waiting for his trial. In his affidavit, Robertson stated he knew about Stites’ and Reed’s secret relationship and he saw them many times at parties together.
However, even one of the Stites’ relatives still is unconvinced with how the trial turned out. They stated that it should have been investigated more thoroughly than what was done. They even stated that they do not feel as if Reed was the one who murdered her or even raped her for that matter. This relative of Stites’ who wished to stay anonymous even stated that there are other family members that share this same opinion.
According to Reed’s defense attorneys, they stated that they did not put on these witnesses because there was a handful of them that had their own issues with the law, while some of them were relatives of Reed, which could end up being a double-edged sword for them. They stated that calling them to the stand could have opened the door for the prosecutors to link Reed to criminal acts.
Lastly, there was Ronnie Reveal, who was Stites’ friend. Reveal told the investigators back in February of 1997 about a conversation he had with Stites just shortly before she was murdered. Reveal stated that she seemed quite down and depressed and he asked what was going on to make her feel that way. Stites told Reveal that her boyfriend and she were having problems and that her boyfriend had a very violent temper. Investigators never pursued this information and Reveal never made it to the witness stand.
Reed’s Side of the Story
Reed stated that he did not see Stites since the night prior to her death. Reed stated that he saw her in the late hours of April 21 into the early hours of April 22, just before she had to leave to head to work at the local HEB.
Reed also claims that the pair meeting was always an arrangement that the pair had since they first met back in 1995. Reed recounted how in the beginning he would bump into her at a gas station or another place, and they would strike up a conversation, but that stopped around November of 1995.
When that ended, Reed stated that he and Stites would see each other every week. There would be times that she would come into the Bastrop Community Center or stop by his parents’ house. Even though his mother, Sandra disapproved of it.
But typically, Reed and Stites’ would see one another prior to her going to work, or late at night. They would head to the local state park, where they would talk and have sex, which was exactly what happened the last time Reed saw her.
Innocent of Death Row Texas Updates
As of late Rodney Reed’s lawyers have cited there is new allegations of sexual misconduct against Stacey Stites’ former fiancée Jimmy Fennell in their latest appeal.
Reed was convicted of 1996 murder of Stacey Stites. Stites was Fennell’s then-fiancée. Reed has always maintained his innocence, and Reeds lawyers have always suggested that Fennell was the one who committed this heinous crime.
This appeal is from Reed’s Lawyers who reveals that Fennell who is serving out a 10-year sentence in prison for kidnapping along with improper sexual activity with a person in custody, as well as a sexual predator with a long history of abusing women.
Unfortunately, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in the recent while has denied both attempts for giving Reed a new trial.
As of 2019, Bastrop County Prosecutors have requested for a November 20 execution date for Rodney Reedy.
Reed’s defense team responded by asking the interim Judge Doug Shaver to toss out this motion to remotely set an execution date. They argued that it is not the correct response for a front-page story in the Bastrop Advertiser.
This request from the prosecutors only came 24 hours after the Bastrop Advertiser published their story. The story was published in retaliation for Rodney Reed’s family exercising their First Amendment right.
Reed’s defense lawyers requested Shaver to tell the prosecutors to toss out the internal communications about the motion and to wait for sworn depositions. Reed’s defense lawyers asked Shaver to also impose sanctions, against the prosecutors, if needed.
However, Bryan Goertz, Bastrop County District Attorney stated that the motion of the defense was uncalled for. That the request for the execution date was merely due to meeting the court deadlines and nothing else.
Goertz stated that himself and Matthew Ottoway, the state assistant attorney general was helping the Bastrop County with Reed’s case. They planned to file this motion two weeks after the Court of Criminal Appeals denied the last of the appeals that Reed’s defense team filed in the last few years.
This two-week window would allow time for Reed’s defense team to contact the court to re-evaluate their ruling.
Goertz then stated that all of Reed’s appeals were exhausted. So, the only logical next step from the state’s point of view is to set an execution date.
However, Reed’s defense team stated in their response to the judge that the prosecutors knew that Reed planned on filing and additional federal court appeal. Reed’s defense went on to ask Shaver to bar the prosecution from filing for an execution date until this review was finished.
Bryce Benjet, one of Reed’s Defense lawyers stated that Goertz’ two-week timeline was only around due to it being a state law not to allow a motion to rehear in Reed’s case.
In a recent motion, Goertz requested that an execution date be set without having a court hearing. Goertz stated that issues have not changed since the executions were scheduled, but it was later postponed in 2015.
If Shaver insists that a hearing is needed, Goertz stated that it should happen as soon as possible, so they can meet the state law that says the courts need to set an execution date for at least 90 days in the future.
So, for Reed to be executed on November 20, 2019, an order would have to be entered no later than August 21, 2019 state Goertz.