Twenty-three years later, the state of Texas is preparing to execute the man convicted of raping and strangling the soon-to-be-bride. Rodney Reed, 51, has been in prison since 1998 and was moved to death row over the summer. He is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Nov. 20.
But in an eleventh-hour bid to spare Reed’s life, his lawyers at the Innocence Project have filed court papers claiming someone else admitted responsibility for killing Stites: her police officer fiance, Jimmy Fennell, who was outraged she was having an affair with Reed, a black man. The confession was allegedly made to a prison inmate while Fennell was serving time for sexually assaulting a woman while on duty in 2007. It is, the Innocence Project attorneys say, merely the latest development pointing to Reed’s innocence and Fennell’s guilt.
“Whether you agree with the death penalty or not, I think everybody agrees that at least we ought to be executing people who actually committed the crime,” said Bryce Benjet, a senior attorney at the Innocence Project who has represented Reed for 12 years. “And I think that everybody recognizes the kind of damage that an execution in a case like this would do to the integrity of our system.”
The offices of the governor and the attorney general did not respond to requests for comment. In court, state prosecutors have repeatedly argued against years of pleas from Reed’s attorneys to consider new evidence in the case. They claimed in one 2015 filing that the many efforts to attack his conviction had failed “because his evidence is weak and because his guilt is strong.”
Robert Phillips, the attorney who represented Fennell in his sexual assault case, said the allegation that his client is the true killer is “laughably untrue.” He said the evidence against Reed is compelling and pointed to testimony from other women who said they had been victimized by him in other sexual assaults that were never tried in court. One of them said Reed had threatened to kill her before she managed to escape.
“I’m absolutely astonished that the media, who is so properly exercised by the sexual assault scandals in Hollywood and elsewhere, are paying no attention to these other extraneous women,” Phillips said. “Each of them have scars they’ll never get rid of because of this savage guy.”
Reed has denied involvement in the other sexual assaults. Benjet said Phillips and the state are focusing on those incidents “because there’s no evidence actually supporting Rodney’s guilt.”
In an NBC News interview that aired Wednesday, Reed maintained that he is “absolutely innocent” of killing Stites. Though he is staring down death, he said he is “cautiously optimistic that something good has to happen.”
After Stites’s body was discovered in April 1996, investigators initially questioned Fennell, the then-24-year-old police officer she had been dating for about a year and was planning to marry. Reed’s attorneys have noted in court filings that her friends described Fennell as jealous in interviews with police, with one saying Stites had mentioned his violent temper.
The investigation of Fennell ended a year later when DNA turned up a new suspect: Reed. A profile obtained from vaginal swabs of Stites matched to Reed, whose sperm had been collected in an unrelated sexual assault investigation. Under questioning, Reed denied knowing Stites — though he and his attorneys would later argue the two were having an affair.
“I’m a black man in a small town,” Reed told MSNBC host Chris Hayes during a 2015 special on the case. “I’m not pulling a race card or anything like that, it’s not about that. But the nature of the — it was a small city I lived in. You know what I’m saying?”
At trial, Bastrop County prosecutors argued that Reed had intercepted Stites while she was driving to work, sexually assaulted her and strangled her with her belt. Key to their theory was testimony from forensic experts who told jurors that the presence of Reed’s semen could only be explained as the result of a sexual assault that occurred around the same time as the murder.
They called it the “Cinderella’s slipper” in the case.
But in the years since the conviction, much of that testimony has been called into question. The medical examiner who conducted Stites’s autopsy, Roberto Bayardo, said in a declaration that the semen is not evidence of sexual assault and could have been a product of a consensual encounter between Reed and Stites on the day before the murder.
Witnesses have come forward to claim knowledge of the affair. One of Stites’s co-workers, Alicia Slater, said Stites told her she “was sleeping with a black guy named Rodney and that she didn’t know what her fiancé would do if he found out.”
Charles Wayne Fletcher, a former colleague of Fennell’s at the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office, told Reed’s attorneys that Fennell said he believed Stites was involved with “a n-----.”
Reed’s race was also cited by the former inmate who claimed Fennell confessed to him. Arthur Snow, a onetime member of the Aryan Brotherhood who was imprisoned with Fennell in Texas in 2010, said in a sworn affidavit that Fennell told him, “I had to kill my n----- loving fiancé.”
Phillips dismissed the testimony from the new witnesses as “nonsense.”
“It’s the narrative they’ve floated since the trial of Rodney Reed in 1998,” he said. “The jury didn’t buy it. No appellate court has bought it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And these desperate, eleventh-hour tactics from very creative and talented lawyers are not likely to succeed, either.”
Reed was previously set to be executed in 2015. About a week and a half before the day he was supposed to die, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed his execution.
This time, the court has denied his recent appeals. Abbott, the Republican governor, has stopped just one execution since he was sworn in nearly five years ago, according to the Associated Press.
Benjet said having an execution date is “deadly serious,” noting, “this is Texas” — the execution capital of America. Since 1976, more than a third of all executions in the United States have taken place in Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Benjet said that at the beginning of Reed’s time on death row, he was housed next to a man whose date came up in August.
“Here’s a guy, they’re sharing commissary, they’re able to communicate back and forth — and then one day he’s gone,” Benjet said. “And you can only think that that’s going to happen to you next. So that’s unimaginable. And for what?”