The court’s indefinite stay is another dramatic development in one of the most high-profile death sentence cases in recent history for Texas, which puts more people to death than any other state. Reed has bipartisan supporters, including numerous celebrities, and the court’s ruling represents a victory for advocates who have fought to end the execution of prisoners.
“It’s further reason for the public to question the death penalty process in Texas,” said Kenneth Williams, a professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. “You had someone who was so close to being executed convince the court — a very tough court — that he has at least a prima facie case that he’s innocent. It’s another black eye for the death penalty system here in Texas.”
Reed’s attorney, Bryce Benjet of the Innocence Project, praised the appeals court’s decision, which sends the case back to the Bastrop County district court. There, a judge will consider Reed’s claims that he is innocent and that the state prosecutor committed misconduct.
“We are extremely relieved and thankful,” Benjet said in a statement. “This opportunity will allow for proper consideration of the powerful and mounting new evidence of Mr. Reed’s innocence.”
The ruling, which came just hours after the pardons board’s decision, renders that recommendation “basically moot,” Williams said. Now, Reed’s case will have another chance to wend its way through the court system, which could take months or even years, he said.
“He won’t have an execution date anytime soon, is my guess,” said Williams, who used to be a death penalty lawyer and still teaches a class on the subject.
This type of ruling is exceedingly rare — “especially in Texas,” he said, where the threshold to reopen a death penalty case is extremely high.
“We believe that Rodney’s going to be exonerated, and I knew that November 20 was a lie,” Rodrick Reed, Rodney Reed’s brother, said of the scheduled execution date. “That’s the date the man set. God did not have that date set. I was just glad when God showed us that we were right in what we were putting our faith in and what we believed in.”
The campaign to spare Rodney Reed’s life has been bolstered by support in recent weeks from figures as wide-ranging as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and reality TV star Kim Kardashian West. Stars including Meek Mill, Oprah and Rihanna joined calls for the execution to be stopped, and a bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers urged Abbott to grant Reed a reprieve “until new developments in his case are fully resolved.” An online petition demanding the governor stop the execution had collected nearly 3 million signatures as of Friday night.
Reed has long maintained he is innocent of raping and strangling 19-year-old Stacey Stites, who at the time of her death was a grocery store clerk and soon-to-be bride. Prosecutors said he had intercepted the young woman as she drove to work early on the morning of April 23, 1996, and assaulted her. Key to the case was that DNA matched to Reed was found inside Stites’s body — a fact forensic experts told the jury could only be explained as a result of a sexual assault that happened around the same time as the murder.
Prosecutors called it the “Cinderella’s slipper” in the case.
But Reed said he and Stites were having an affair, and in the years since his conviction, much of the evidence presented at trial 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.
Others have bolstered an argument from Reed’s attorneys that Stites’s fiance, Jimmy Fennell, may be responsible for the crime. They allege Fennell, a former police officer who served time in prison for sexually assaulting a woman while on duty in 2007, was outraged that Stites had a relationship with Reed, a black man, and that he confessed to killing her. Arthur Snow, an inmate once imprisoned with Fennell, said in a recent sworn affidavit that Fennell told him, “I had to kill my n----- loving fiance.”
Fennell’s attorney, Robert Phillips, has dismissed those claims as “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.
Reed’s attorneys, however, note he was acquitted in one case, while the others were never tried in court. Benjet said Phillips and others focus on those incidents “because there’s no evidence actually supporting Rodney’s guilt.”
Reed’s family, his legal team and his supporters celebrated Friday’s developments, but cautioned that their work is not yet done.
“We can breathe a little bit because we were down to the wire — a matter of days, just a few days,” Rodrick Reed said. “Now I got to remind everybody that this is great, this is a great victory, but this is just a small battle. This is not the war.”
Shortly after the rulings came down, Benjet said, an attorney traveled to the prison to deliver Reed the news.