BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — Attorneys for the state began their case against Rodney Reed on Friday in an effort to uphold his conviction in the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites.
Reed’s defense team, on the other hand, is asking the judge to consider making a recommendation to the higher courts that he get a new trial. All week, they called witnesses to the stand to prove their assertion Reed is innocent and another man, Jimmy Fennell, the victim’s fiancé, is responsible.
Through witness testimony, they worked to establish a prior relationship between Reed and the victim that they say “guts” the kidnapping and rape claims. They also argued false evidence was presented at his original trial, and prosecution did not turn over all exculpatory evidence that could have exonerated or been favorable to him.
Meanwhile, the state argued in its opening statements there is no evidence the two had an affair prior to her death and asked the court to consider the “credibility” of the witnesses taking the stand decades later. On cross-examination of the defense’s witnesses, they’ve questioned their memories, the reliability of their testimony and their motives for coming forward.
The state’s attorneys have also questioned the reliability of witnesses’ sworn affidavits, some of which were written in 2019 before the courts stayed Reed’s execution date. They asked witnesses whether someone had drafted the document for them or helped them craft the contents of the document.
The state was scheduled to begin its case on the second week of proceedings but began bringing witnesses to the stand Friday morning.
Renae Duncan, the wife of a former law enforcement officer with Bastrop Police and the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office, took the stand first. She noted her husband has been diagnosed with dementia and lived in a memory care center.
“Right now, he doesn’t even know who I am,” she said.
The defense asked Duncan when her husband’s long-term memory loss began. She said it was hard to pinpoint a date, because she didn’t want to accept it. She did say she remembers coming up for a deposition in this case but doesn’t remember the year. She added that was the time when it was noted her husband “was not capable.”
The prosecutors called two law enforcement officers from Giddings and Lee County, where Giddings is located. Nathan Lapham, a former Giddings police officer who says he worked with Jimmy Fennell, told the court he did not know of any Giddings police officer conducting an investigation into the death of Stites.
Rodney Meyer, who was the chief deputy of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office in 1996 and became sheriff in 2007, echoed that sentiment. He said he had “no knowledge” if their department was conducting any investigation, because “there were no reports.”
Testimony of David Board
The majority of the morning, the court heard from David Board, a former officer with the Bastrop Police Department.
He responded to the high school parking lot the day Jimmy Fennell’s truck was found. He said there were several concerning things at that scene, such as carbon copies of Fennell’s checkbook outside the vehicle and part of a belt. It was later discovered Stites was strangled with this belt. Board told the court he’s familiar with where Reed lived at the time and said this location was “less than a mile” away.
After the Texas Rangers were notified and brought onto the investigation, Board testified to flying in the DPS helicopter with Ranger Rocky Wardlow as they followed Stites’ route to work from above. Eventually, they were notified her body had been found the morning of April 23, 1996.
Board testified to being at the crime scene, but said he was not helping “process” it.
Lisa Tanner, a prosecutor with the state, asked Board if he interviewed anybody at that time who connected Reed and Stities.
“Any rumor? Any hint? Any suggestion?”
“No,” he said, adding uniformed officers were at the H-E-B grocery store for a few years after providing security, “seven days a week.”
Upon cross-examination, the defense pointed out Board has only interviewed around 32 of Stites’ co-workers at H-E-B: 23 men and 9 women.
Several times throughout questioning, the prosecution attempted to bring up other sexual assault cases where Reed was a suspect. The defense objected to this being submitted to the record, but Tanner said, “We can’t pretend like they don’t exist.”
She went on to say the court was aware “the defendant has a long history of sexual assault.”
The judge ultimately allowed Tanner to ask Board about another woman who identified Reed as her assailant in an attack. Then, Board detailed his knowledge of a DNA match between Stites and a different victim, but he confirmed this case-to-case match occurred prior to a sample being taken from Reed.
Board told the court he interviewed Reed when he was arrested on a separate narcotics case in 1997, and Reed did not indicate any knowledge of that DNA match. Board also confirmed this interview was video-taped.
“After the discovery of her body, it became apparent we were looking for anybody local who had a history of sexual assaults,” Board said.
The victim’s sister, Debra Oliver, pointed to these other cases earlier in the week. She said their families were in touch with some victims in other pending cases.
Testimony of Rocky Wardlow
A man who the prosecution calls the “main investigator” in the original homicide investigation took the stand on Friday afternoon.
Rocky Wardlow now serves as the chief of police in Horseshoe Bay, Texas, but spent decades with DPS and many years as a Texas Ranger. He opened the Texas Rangers’ Bastrop office in 1995.
Wardlow told the court he was on the case from “day one,” flying in a DPS helicopter in search of Stacey’s body, but landing it around 3 p.m. on April 23, 1996 after she was discovered.
He said he called the DPS crime scene team, who collected evidence and items from the area they found her body, as well as recorded video of the crime scene.
Wardlow said the victim was partially clothed, laying on her right side with her legs together and knees bent.
“Her pants were unbuttoned, unzipped, and what we later learned was her t-shirt was laying on the road there next to her,” he described. He said he believed she may have been sexually assaulted, after reviewing the scene.
He said he later got a call from a woman named Karen Blakely who was reviewing the evidence found on and around Stites’ body.
“The things I saw indicated sexual assault… she confirmed that,” he told the court.
The defense asked Wardlow whether he considered the spermatozoa evidence found the “smoking gun” in the case.
“If you could identify the person who left the semen, you could find who killed Ms. Stites?” the attorney asked.
“It’s logical,” he replied.
Throughout their questioning, the defense pressed him on why he came to that conclusion, without considering a consensual sexual relationship.
Tensions came to a head when the prosecutors attempted again to bring up “how this defendant came to be a suspect in this case,” referring to DNA evidence from another assault that was ultimately linked to Stites. The defense immediately objected and asked to approach the bench.
The judge asked why, noting, “There’s no jury here.”
However, after conducting an in-camera conference with the attorneys behind closed doors, prosecution was allowed to continue their questioning under a “bill of exceptions.” This means a portion of the questioning would not be admitted in to evidence.
Wardlow says focus of the investigation shifted in the latter half of 1996, after a girl came in to report an attempted kidnapping and assault near Bastrop High School and identified Rodney Reed as the suspect out of a picture lineup.
Wardlow explained they tested Reed’s DNA, previously obtained during 1995 alleged sexual assault case where the victim withdrew, but he didn’t remember why. It was a case-to-case match with the Stites’ case.
After that and Board’s interview of Reed, he said they swore out a search warrant for blood and saliva samples of him.
Defense questions Wardlow about victim’s fiancé
Wardlow testified to interviewing Jimmy Fennell two days after his fiancé’s body was found. He noted Robert Duncan, the husband of the first witness who testified on Friday and the chief of police in Bastrop at the time, interviewed Fennell on April 23 — but at that point it was still a missing person’s investigation.
Prosecution and defense both asked Wardlow about Fennell’s two failed polygraph tests. Wardlow noted another suspect in the case, with no relation to Fennell, also failed a polygraph.
Defense hammered Wardlow with questions on why law enforcement didn’t search Fennell and Stites’ apartment and why they relied on his account of the night before her death, if he was a suspect in the case.
The defense attorneys also asked when Fennell was cleared, despite what they called “inconsistencies” with his story and his lack of an alibi. Wardlow testified they looked into the “logistics” of how Fennell could have been responsible, but the timeline didn’t make sense.
He reiterated they searched Giddings police vehicle mileages and local taxi records to see how Fennell could have traveled back home, if he had been involved — seeing as the couple shared the red truck law enforcement found and ruled to be involved.
Still, Wardlow agreed the lack of a DNA connection was likely another reason Fennell was cleared, along with several other suspects.
At the end of the day, the defense raised a concern with the judge and opposing counsel. They said they had reason to believe an expert medical witness apparently set to take the stand next week had been “retained” or paid. They said they had heard it was a sum of around $500.
Prosecution said they had no knowledge of this, but they would check into it immediately.
Prosecution will continue to present their case beginning Monday.
KXAN’s Avery Travis will be updating this article with more information. For now, details from Wednesday’s testimony are available in the Twitter thread below.