Forensic pathologists disagree with defense experts in Rodney Reed case

Rodney Reed

BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — A Central Texas forensic expert took the stand for the second day in a row, in Rodney Reed’s evidentiary hearing.

The state’s attorney’s first called Dr. Suzanna Dana to testify on Monday. She presented her analysis and conclusions about the time of Stacey Stites’ death and other details from after her body was found along a Bastrop County road in 1996. Some of these details were key to Reed’s rape and murder conviction in 1998.

Dr. Dana agreed with the medical examiner who testified at Reed’s original trial, Dr. Roberto Bayardo, particularly in regards to the estimated time Stites’ died — from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. Her testimony was at odds with two forensic experts that the defense brought to the stand last week.

This testimony has all been presented as a part of an evidentiary hearing called for by the Court of Criminal Appeals, as Reed’s defense team continues to fight to get him off death row in Texas.

Last week, the defense brought 18 witnesses to testify. Some were people with personal accounts of interactions with Reed, Stites and her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell. Fennell took the stand, as well.

The defense also called on two forensic pathologists to provide expert testimony last week.

Both Dr. Andrew Baker and Dr. Gregory Davis told the court they reviewed Stites’ case and found several indicators that she could have died before the original estimation of between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., which would implicate Fennell in her death.

Dr. Suzanna Dana took the stand on Monday and Tuesday, agreeing with many of the original assessments in Stacey Stites’ 1996 autopsy. (KXNA Photo/Ed Zavala)

Dr. Baker was the first witness to take the stand in this hearing. Last Monday, he noted he had “serious qualms” about the original medical testimony given in Reed’s 1998 trial by the medical examiner, Dr. Roberto Bayardo, and by a forensic expert with the Texas Department of Public Safety named Karen Blakley. His concerns included testimony about the length of time sperm can persist inside a body, the timing of bruises found on the victim and the lividity of her body — meaning, the pooling of blood at the lowest point in the body after death.

Then, last Wednesday, Dr. Gregory Davis told the court he supported Dr. Baker’s conclusions.

However, this week Dr. Dana told the court that she didn’t find anything inconsistent with the 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. time of death estimate. Her analysis was based on the timeline of a phenomenon called rigor mortis — or the stiffening of the body after death — and other indicators from photos of the crime scene.

Then, Dr. Dana said she used “additional information” to narrow the range “a little bit to either side” of her original estimation, but not by much.

Much of the debate on Tuesday focused on the role additional or “ancillary” information should and does play in the job of a medical examiner. For example, Dr. Dana asserted that details how the victim was dressed, what time the truck was found, whether or not she had contact lenses in her eyes was all objective information that she, as an expert, could use to narrow that time of death window. She said further assumptions from those details, however, would be considered subjective.

When the defense asked her about how long sperm can stay intact, Dr. Dana asserted that it would have been “very unusual” to find intact spermatozoa — still containing heads and tails — in a dead body. In response to some studies referenced by Dr. Baker last week, Dr. Dana argued, “You can’t really take those studies in a live person and use it.”

She said that’s because the makeup of a body changes after death.

Who is Dr. Bayardo?

The defense pressed Dr. Dana on her agreement with Dr. Roberto Bayardo, the Travis County medical examiner for nearly three decades.

His autopsy results — particularly regarding Stites’ time of death and his testimony that she had been sexually assaulted — proved to be some of the prime evidence leading Reed’s capital murder conviction. 15 years later Dr. Bayardo partially reversed his original opinion and signed a sworn affidavit stating he could not accurately determine when Stites died.

KXAN investigators took a closer look at his office in 2016, after Bayardo called his own results into question in several other criminal cases. Their investigation revealed an unusually high number of autopsies conducted each year, which experts said may have contributed to “critical missteps” in high-profile murder cases.

Dr. Dana said she liked Dr. Bayardo when she worked with him in Travis County. She noted that it wasn’t the workload that caused her to leave the office, but rather the tight budget.

“I didn’t feel overworked, but I did feel I was being confined on how good of an autopsy I could produce,” she said, referring to certain tests and resources she felt were lacking. “That’s not unusual in medical examiner’s offices.”

The Judge’s decision

Defense attorney Barry Scheck handled the cross-examination of Dr. Dana. Scheck co-founded the Innocence Project — which is representing Reed — and received national attention serving on O.J Simpson’s defense team.

He pressed Dr. Dana on why her conclusions on rigor mortis, lividity and other indicators on Stites’ body differed not only from Dr. Baker, but also from conclusions laid out in a prior expert opinion from Dr. LeRoy Rid­dick. Riddick asserted that the state of the rigor mortis in Stites’ body pointed toward an earlier time of death.

“You are not helping me make a decision.”

Judge J.D. Langley, presiding over Rodney Reed hearing

In fact, Dana said it was “curious” that Dr. Baker ended up commenting on the same video clips in his report that Dr. Riddick commented on years prior. She also added that it was “odd” that Baker “left out certain clips that demonstrably show the rigor.”

At one point during Scheck’s questioning about forensic science standards, Judge J.D. Langley interrupted and said, “Let me make this clear to you: I’ve got to answer four questions. What does this have to do with my four questions?”

He was referring to the four questions the defense has asked the judge to review: Reed’s actual innocence claim, the claim the state presented false evidence in the original trial, a Brady claim that prosecution did not turn over all the evidence that could have been favorable to the defendant, and a claim that an unreasonable amount of time has been allowed to pass — also known as Laches defense.

When Scheck apologized for “testing his patience,” Langley went on: “You are not helping me make a decision.”

Second forensic expert for the state

Dr. Norma Jean Farley, the Chief Deputy Medical Examiner in Bexar County also took the stand on Tuesday. She became the fourth expert to explain the phenomenon of rigor mortis and give her opinion on it in Stites’ case.

“Rigor isn’t something that’s set in stone,” she said.

Dr. Farley told the court that, generally, it can begin 30 minutes to one or two hours after death. Then, she said rigor takes around 12 to 14 hours to hit its “peak.”

Using pictures and videos from the evening of April 23, 1996 when law enforcement found Stites’ body. Farley pointed out what she called a clear example of rigor — along with what she believes to be a heat injury under Stites’ bra and ant bites on her back.

Dr. Farley also told the court, she believed Stites was placed in the brush where she was found, not dragged. She estimated the time of death to be a “few hours prior to being placed in that position.”

Farley told the defense that she first heard about the Rodney Reed case this year, after being asked to review it by the state’s attorneys. When she searched the date of April 23, 1996 online in hopes of learning the temperature on the day Stites’ body was found, she said she was surprised to see how many news stories “popped up.”

Upon learning the temperature outside was 79 degrees Fahrenheit, she said that temperature was hot “for a body” — and could have affected rigor and other factors.

DNA evidence

The final witness of the day took the stand after 4 p.m.

A woman who works on DNA testing at the DPS crime lab testified to DNA results linking Reed to Stites in 1996 and 1998. This woman also walked the court through a report she oversaw in 2014.

She talked through each of the evidence samples from the original case — such as hair, vaginal and rectal swabs, and stains on Stites’ pants, underwear and back brace. She told the court that DNA results “could not exclude” Rodney Reed or any of his paternal male relatives as a match for many of the samples.

Lisa Tanner, one of the original prosecutors in the 1998 trial, asked the witness “to summarize” whether this post-conviction DNA testing confirmed results done by previous testing, linking Reed to the victim. The witness said, “Yes.”

Tanner went on, “Did post-conviction DNA testing also provide additional results, previously unknown?”

Yes, the witness replied.

The defense pressed the witness on whether their testing could provide more information on the time frame for when the DNA was deposited.

Judge J.D. Langley leaving the courtroom at the Bastrop County Sheriff’s department. (KXAN Photo/Ed Zavala)

Scheck also asked the witness about one evidence sample taken that they could not produce any comparisons for: a hair found near Stites’ pubic area. The witness explained that during a quality control procedure, cross-checking the results with DNA information from their staff, a crime lab analyst’s DNA was included in the results.

Scheck ended his questioning by asking why the belt, believed to have been used to strangle Stites, was not tested for touch or trace DNA. The witness explained that technology is now more sensitive, but still it’s not often tested — outside of cases where there was likely considerable force used on the object or it was held for a long time.

Scheck asked if an item such as this, likely used as a weapon in a capital murder case, would have been tested for touch DNA today. The witness said it would have.

“I’m willing to stay here until midnight if that’s what it is going to take.”

Judge J.D. Langley to the attorneys in Rodney Reed’s evidentiary hearing

Before court adjourned for the day, Tanner asked the witness whether aspects of how the belt had been stored or how many people handled the item would have affected that decision.

“It’s possible you could get a mixture of DNA from people who had touched it over the years,” the witness said.

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