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TX: Rodney Reed’s innocence claim rejected
Wed Jan 15, 2014 14:03

Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 | Austin American-Statesman
Rodney Reed’s innocence claim rejected in Bastrop County murder
By Chuck Lindell - American-Statesman Staff

A federal appeals court has denied an appeal by Rodney Reed, leaving the death row inmate with limited options to avoid lethal injection in the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop County.

Reed’s lawyers argue that he is innocent of the crime and that Stites was murdered by somebody else — most likely her fiance, Jimmy Fennell, who years later was sentenced to 10 years in prison for raping a woman in his custody as a Georgetown police officer.

Reed argued that he and Stites were engaged in a secret affair, explaining the presence of his semen in her body, and his lawyers presented testimony from two medical experts who concluded that the semen had likely been deposited at least 24 hours — and as long as one week — before Stites was killed.

But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected those arguments, ruling Friday that Reed’s innocence claim lacked credibility.

Instead of establishing Reed’s innocence, the experts at best provided an alternate scenario that lacked solid scientific support, a three-judge panel of the court ruled.

“By contrast, the evidence that Reed forced himself on Stites and subsequently murdered her is extensive,” said the opinion by Justice Carolyn Dineen King.

King said the condition of Stites’ body, which was extensively bruised, shirtless and with her pants zipper broken, “strongly supports the conclusion that Stites was the victim of a sexual assault and that the sperm inside her did not result from a consensual encounter.”

Reed was known to frequent the area through which Stites drove to her early-morning job at a Bastrop grocery store, King noted.

The appeals court also dismissed the defense witnesses who said they had seen Reed and Stites together in the months before her murder. All of the witnesses were friends, family or associates of Reed, most did not personally know Stites and many were shown to be unreliable — including one who claimed to have known Stites from school, an impossibility because Stites moved to the area after graduation, King wrote.

Reed’s lawyers have vowed to continue challenging his conviction through every legal avenue available.

The most likely next step, defense lawyer Bryce Benjet said, will be to ask all 14 judges on the appeals court to rehear the case, though such requests are rarely granted. If that fails, the final step would be appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, which also rarely grants review of cases. An execution date cannot be set until the appeals process ends.

Monday’s appeals court ruling also rejected defense arguments that Reed received ineffective legal help and had favorable evidence withheld from his trial lawyers in violation of his constitutional rights.

In particular, Reed’s lawyers argued that prosecutors did not reveal a pretrial DNA report on a beer can found near Stites’ body along a rural Bastrop County road. The report revealed that Stites and two police officers — one a friend of Fennell — could not be excluded as contributors to the mix of DNA profiles on the can, providing a potential link between Fennell and the murder.

The appeals court noted, however, that Reed’s trial lawyer could not recall whether or not the report had been provided. Regardless, the court said, Reed could not show that he was adversely affected because his own DNA expert conducted additional testing that excluded Stites and the officers as donors of the DNA.

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