BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — A ruling from the 21st District Court on the Rodney Reed evidentiary hearing is expected by the end of the month, Judge J.D. Langley said Monday.
Both the state and Reed’s defense attorneys wrapped up their cases in July. Currently, Reed is on death row after being convicted of raping and murdering Stacey Stites in 1996 but has maintained his innocence.
Langley’s confirmation follows closing arguments delivered Monday by both the state and Reed’s defense team to the judge. Each side was given a maximum of 2.5 hours to present their findings to Langley for final review.
The state takes the stand
Representatives from the state argued Reed was solely responsible for kidnapping, raping and “violently murdering” Stites. They pointed to her behavior leading up to her death — including taking a higher-paying job in H-E-B’s produce department to pay for her wedding — as evidence she was in love and in a happy, committed relationship with fiancé Jimmy Fennell.
On the morning of April 23, 1996, Fennell’s red Chevy truck was found abandoned at Bastrop High School. The state said Stites didn’t own a car, and she and Fennell discussed transportation plans each day, including carpooling or Stites taking the car, and Fennell carpooling to his job with the Giddings Police Department with coworkers.
In the abandoned car, evidence found included: one sneaker, half of an earring, broken pieces of a plastic cup Stites took with her to work, as well as carbon copies of checks from Fennell gone. A broken piece of her belt was also found near the car.
On the topic of the carbon copies of checks, the state argued anyone who had had their checks stolen would put a freeze on their bank account; they argued if Fennell was guilty, he would’ve drained his account and fled.
When Stites’ body was discovered, she wasn’t wearing a shirt and the zipper on her pants was broken. Her shirt was bunched up in brush nearby. She was also wearing contact lenses, mascara and a knee brace, with one sneaker missing and her H-E-B name tag in the crook of her leg. A piece of a broken belt was found near the roadway.
“That’s the scene of a sexual assault,” the state argued, noting authorities discovered other signs of recent sexual contact.
Following her death, Fennell was interrogated for nearly a year by investigators, the state argued. Regarding two failed polygraph tests Fennell took, the state said he was asked whether he was responsible for Stites’ death. They claimed he felt responsible since he hadn’t driven her to work, and instead slept in and sent her with the car.
At Stites’ funeral, the defense previously questioned Fennell’s stoicism and muted demeanor. In response to that claim, the state argued he was “broken beyond the point of comprehension.”
On witness testimonies, the state said the vast majority of new witnesses can be classified as “honest liars” — those who have good intentions but have dated memories that have since faded with the passing of time. The state leaned on prior expert testimony from July that claimed memories are altered over time as people forget things, and their minds “fill in the gaps” to create a more complete story.
Some of the defense’s witness testimonies claimed Stites feared knowledge of her alleged affair with Reed would come out and that she was paranoid of what Fennell would do if he found out. Other witnesses said they saw Reed and Stites be very affectionate with each other in public. These, the state argued, existed in direct contradiction with each other.
The state also addressed the logistics of claims that Fennell killed Stites, saying it would’ve been difficult to murder her at their apartment and carry her downstairs without Carol Stites (Stacey’s mom who lived beneath them) hearing.
Regarding Reed’s claims on a consensual relationship with Stites, the state said that timeline and those details have wavered over time. Reed initially denied knowing Stites outside of media coverage on her death, but then said in 1998 the two had sex a few days before her murder.
In 2001, he said they had sex one to one-and-a-half days prior to her death, the state argued. In 2015, he said the two had last had sex either late April 21 or early April 22, the state added.
Wrapping up their closing arguments, the state quoted the 2008 Court of Criminal Appeals finding on Reed. In its ruling, the CCA said there wasn’t a cohesive theory to support Reed’s innocence in his testimony, and new evidence at the time failed to tell “a complete, rationally, exculpatory narrative” that would exonerate Reed.
“Reed’s story of innocence is just that, your honor — it’s a story. It’s not true,” the state argued.
The defense makes its case
In the indictment of Reed, the defense argued the argument of his guilt is reliant on the 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. window of death previously testified in trial. In order for the timeline to mean anything, the defense argued it’s dependent on Stites having left her apartment at 3 a.m. — a time frame provided by Fennell.
That time frame, the defense said, wasn’t dependent on body decomposition, rigor mortis or other evidentiary elements but rather Fennell’s testimony.
Forensic experts Dr. Andrew Baker and Dr. Gregory Davis analyzed details of the case for the defense without pay, with the defense arguing details of their assessments contradicted those provided by the state’s forensic experts.
Karen Blakely, a forensic expert with the Texas Department of Public Safety, testified at trial intact sperm — with sperm head and tail attached — can’t last in a vaginal cavity longer than 24 to 26 hours following sexual intercourse.
However, the defense argued in the same study Blakely cited on sperm, the study noted intact sperm can survive for several days — longer than the 24 to 26 hour window Blakely testified.
With that piece of evidence, the defense argued Reed’s claim of consensual sex a few days before Stites’ death is plausible. This evidence, paired with Reed’s claims of a consensual relationship, would provide reasonable doubt to a jury that Reed is guilty of her kidnap, assault and murder, the defense argued.
When her body was discovered, Baker testified there was minimal rigor mortis present in her body, with the defense claiming this meant she was on the waning end of its side effects. The defense argued rigor mortis can take 12 hours to peak and upwards of 36 hours to fully exit a body, and said this means her time of death is earlier than the 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. window.
Previously, forensic expert Dr. Suzanna Dana claimed it doesn’t take 12 hours to reach full rigor mortis development; however, the defense said points made in Dana’s own textbook conclude it takes rigor mortis 12 hours to fully develop under normal conditions.
At the scene of her death, Stites was also photographed with signs of decomposition. The defense argued those developments recorded in the afternoon of April 23 would’ve developed too quickly if Stites had died between 3 to 5 a.m. that same day.
If it had happened sooner, the defense argued her death occurred prior to 3 a.m. According to Fennell’s own testimony, she would’ve been home with him before 3 a.m., the defense noted.
The credibility of the state’s witness weigh heavily on this state, the defense argued. They noted several witnesses who testified to Fennell’s controlling, jealous behavior, corroborating each other’s accounts.
Crystal Dohrmann and Thelma Fennell, Jimmy’s sister and mother, each testified they couldn’t imagine him ever hurting Stites.
The defense pointed to Fennell’s conviction of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman in custody while an officer with the Georgetown Police Department, adding this is also reflective of his character. They later added if Fennell was “broken” following Stites’ death, he wouldn’t have begun dating a new woman two months later and allegedly stalking her.
All witnesses testified on their own accord without personal interest, the defense argued. At the same time, they pointed out investigators’ lack of interviewing any of Fennell’s family or friends following Stites’ death, despite claims he knew many people in law enforcement and had a lot of friends.
The defense said its job isn’t to convict Fennell of Stites’ murder; however, it added the evidence presented paired with Reed’s testimony showcases a reasonable doubt of his guilt in Stites’ death.
“To suggest that every stone was overturned is simply a misrepresentation and not the last,” the defense argued.