AUSTIN (KXAN) – Texas’ highest criminal appeals court on Wednesday rejected death-row inmate Rodney Reed’s most recent applications claiming his innocence and seeking a new trial.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejections – years in the making – are the culmination of a massive effort by Reed’s defense team that included a two-week evidentiary hearing in Bastrop in July 2021. Dozens of witnesses testified, including the victim Stacey Stites’ mother and her former fiancé Jimmy Fennell.
Reed, now 55, was convicted and sentenced to death in Bastrop County for the murder of 19-year-old Stites in 1996. Reed has maintained his innocence and has fought for years with the legal assistance of the New York-based Innocence Project.
Jane Pucher, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project representing Reed, panned the CCA’s decision and accused the state of withholding evidence and violating Reed’s constitutional rights.
“For 23 years, Texas illegally hid evidence that could have exonerated Rodney Reed. He is an innocent man. Texans should be outraged that prosecutorial misconduct is going unchecked and the State is being given a license to cheat – even if it means sending an innocent man to his death,” Pucher said in a statement. “Mr. Reed’s conviction and death sentence violates the most central tenets of our Constitution and cannot stand. We will continue to fight for Mr. Reed’s freedom and bring him home to his family.”
Reed filed his ninth application for writ of habeas corpus in November 2019, and the CCA remanded the case back to Bastrop District Court for further development of three of Reed’s claims: a Brady claim, false testimony and actual innocence. A two-week evidentiary hearing was held in July 2021 to examine claims in Reed’s ninth petition. A Brady claim occurs if prosecutors withhold evidence favorable to the defendant.
Following that evidentiary hearing, presiding Judge J.D. Langley delivered his recommendation that Reed’s conviction stand and relief be denied.
CCA judges sided with Langley. They said Reed’s ninth application claims “do not warrant relief,” and he failed to prove the state suppressed material evidence or presented materially false testimony at trial.
“We deny relief and dismiss any remaining claims as abuses of the writ,” according to the 129-page opinion. Seven of the CCA’s nine judges joined in rejecting Reed’s applications, while one dissented and another did not participate, according to the opinion.
Reed was scheduled to be executed in 2015 and 2019. In both instances, the execution was stayed. The most recent stay in 2019 has remained in place. It is not clear how the CCA’s latest rejections will impact the pause on Reed’s execution.
Pucher described Langley’s recommendation as a “rubber stamp” on the state’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law following the evidentiary hearing.
“The CCA entrusted Judge Langley with making impartial findings and independent assessments of witnesses’ credibility, supported by the evidence. That did not happen,” Pucher said. “It is not plausible that Judge Langley could find every witness for the State to be credible and every witness called by Mr. Reed to be not credible.”
In December 2021, Reed filed his tenth application, which the CCA also rejected Wednesday. That tenth application related, in part, to disclosure letters sent to Reed’s attorneys prior to the beginning of the evidentiary hearing.
Reed’s attorneys said the disclosures revealed witnesses that hinted at a relationship between Stites and Reed and should have been available at trial 23 years prior.
The CCA judges concluded Reed had not the burden “to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that he is actually innocent of Stacey’s murder. Reed presents no new evidence of innocence.”