BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) —The prosecution and defense in Rodney Reed’s appeal hearing rested their cases Thursday.
Attorneys for the state, Reed’s defense team, witnesses and onlookers have gathered each day in Bastrop County since last Monday, as the defense tries to get a new trial after Reed’s conviction in the 1996 rape and murder of Stacy Stites.
Following lunch recess on Thursday, the state’s attorneys presented bill of exception witnesses, whose testimonies were on record for future deliberations by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals but have not yet been admitted on behalf of Reed’s current appeal hearing. However, the judge can change his mind, he said.
Currently, Aug. 17 stands as the date for both the defense and the prosecution to submit their written findings, but that could vary. No date for final summations has yet been set, and the judge’s deadline for response is currently Aug. 31. The judge can request an extension from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, should he choose to.
Bill of exception witnesses testify
Thursday afternoon saw testimonies from three women, brought forward by the state’s attorneys: Vivian Harbottle Chapman, Kellea Miller and Linda Schlueter.
Chapman said she was visiting her stepson and daughters in Bastrop on Oct. 18, 1995 and had come from Corpus Christi. She attended a birthday party at Ray’s Place, a beer bar in Bastrop, that evening.
She said she had drank quite a bit and decided to walk home from the bar instead of drive. While walking, she said she met a tall African American man on the tracks.
The two chatted and shared cigarettes. As a train began heading toward them, Chapman said the man grabbed her arm, pulled her underneath the track and then raped her. She said she was on her period at the time, and removed her tampon before proceeding.
“He had my hands up over my head. He was holding my hands,” she said.
She said she tried screaming and fighting him off, but the man was much heavier than she was and covered her mouth with his hand. Following the alleged rape, he asked if she wanted to go out sometime, which she declined.
She walked back to Ray’s and reported the attack to the bartender, who called the police. She said she had a rape kit performed in an Austin hospital and gave a police report.
She told prosecutors she found out who her assailant was following Stites’ death. Per the prosecution, DNA from her rape kit was consistent with Reed’s.
The next witness who testified was former Bastrop Police Department Officer Kellea Miller, who served with the force from November 1991-May 1999. She said she knew of Reed around town and had previously arrested him.
On Nov. 9, 1996, Miller said she received a 9-1-1 call at 3:36 a.m., while she was working her “graveyard shift.” The call came in past North Main Street, about a quarter-mile past Piney Creek Bridge. Miller said young woman ran to her patrol car, hysterical and disheveled.
The young woman reportedly described to Miller a man trying to kill her, who then stole the woman’s car. The woman described the man as a Black male, over six feet all and wearing blue jeans, sneakers and a white windbreaker with colored stripes.
Miller said the woman had abrasions on hands, red marks on lower neck/chest, deep scratches/swollen areas on back, and a lot of hair missing that came out in Miller’s hand.— Kelsey Thompson (@writtenbykelsey) July 29, 2021
“It was significantly shocking, yes.”
The young lady was identified as Linda Schlueter.
Earlier that evening, Miller testified she had seen read at Long Star’s Mart using the payphones in that same outfit. She forwarded the case to the Bastrop sheriff’s office, since the incident occurred outside city limits.
The woman had abrasions on her hands, red marks beneath her neck, deep scratches and swollen areas on her back and her hair was falling out in large quantities, Miller said.
“It was significantly shocking, yes,” she said.
The young woman was identified as Linda Schlueter, who then testified Thursday following Miller. In 1996, she was 19 years old and living in Austin with her parents. After seeing a movie with a friend, she went to Bastrop for the first time to meet some friends for a party, she said.
While waiting for her friends, she was using a payphone at a nearby gas station and was approached by a man. She said the man asked her “three to four times” for a ride. Schlueter said she finally conceded after the man mentioned he would “just freeze to death.”
As she was driving him, she said she began feeling uneasy about him. Nearly two miles past North Main Street, she said he told her to turn down a dirt road, which she refused to do. The two then struggled for an extended period of time, with Schlueter saying he smashed her head into the steering wheel and repeatedly punched her, among other things.
She said Reed finally let her go and drove off with her car after headlights appeared behind him. Schlueter said a group of four African American men pulled up in a car, with her saying “it wouldn’t be the best idea” to get into the car with them. She said they told her they’d try and find her help before driving away.
After knocking on several nearby residences, a couple called the police, with Miller later reporting to the scene.
The defense pointed to several areas of plausible rejection for Thursday’s bill of exception witnesses, largely centered around the 25 years that had passed since many of the alleged incidents occurred. The defense said Reed was formerly charged in a number of these cases but the state didn’t make any effort to follow through and prosecute.
From Schlueter’s testimony, he said prosecutors were “cherrypicking” a compelling witness, but the alleged incident was a middle-of-the-night encounter as well as a cross-racial event. Earlier this week, the prosecution brought forth psychologist Deborah Davis, who discussed possible unreliability with cross-racial identifications.
In Chapman’s case, the defense addressed her self-admittance of having drank a lot of alcohol prior to the alleged encounter. They also noted that, when Chapman testified during Reed’s capital trial, she had a charge of aggravated assault with bodily injury pending against her.
A final note was made against Miller, who had been disciplined several times by Bastrop Police Department between 1997 and 1999 for insubordination, a lack of credibility and failure to process evidence.
The defense argued issues of reliability from these witness accounts could impede future deliberations under the Court of Criminal Appeals, and shouldn’t be accounted for.
EARLIER THURSDAY: State’s witnesses testify
The defense brought 18 witnesses to testify in support of their claims last week. This week, the state’s attorneys have brought forth witnesses in support of its case upholding Reed’s original conviction and keeping him on death row.
The first witness to take the stand Thursday was Ted Weems, county attorney of Garza County. He previously served as district attorney of Lee County from January 1997 through 2008.
Weems said he was aware of Stites’ April 1996 murder but said he doesn’t recall whether it was an open investigation at the time he took office. He said it wasn’t a Lee County case and it wasn’t under his jurisdiction.
While living in Lee County, he was a member of First Baptist Church in Giddings where he befriended the Sappingtons, including father William, son Brent, and William’s wife, Vicky.
Weems said William approached him outside the First Baptist Church’s fellowship hall one day and said he was Stacey Stites’ neighbor, and had heard “loud arguing” from their home. Weems said he told William it wasn’t a Lee County case, but said he encouraged William to talk to Bastrop County authorities to provide any information he had.
Weems said he couldn’t recall if he’d already taken office yet as district attorney when this conversation happened. He said he never told William that Bastrop County already had a suspect or that investigators didn’t need William’s help. He also said he didn’t tell William to “hush his mouth.”
“No, I never used those words,” he said.
Amid defense questioning, Weems said the Lee County DA office wasn’t involved in the case but was unaware whether Giddings Police Department or the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office was. He said that wasn’t within his control.
He said the Sappingtons were a “fine family” and that he knew them well, adding his wife taught the Sappington’s children in Sunday school. He said he has no reason to believe they’d be untruthful but said he’d never persuaded them not to share potential information relevant to the case.
Former coworkers take the stand
Ron Haas worked at HEB for 29 years, from 1973 to 2002. He worked at the Bastrop HEB store from 1995-1997, the same place Stites worked. He said he served as unit director and oversaw hiring, firing, merchandising, teaching, training and coaching “as if I owned the store.”
He recalled Stites as a hardworking employee who was very friendly with customers — “just an ideal employee,” he said.
On the new employee information sheet she was required to fill out, Haas confirmed to the prosecution team that she checked single under marital status but wrote to the side, “going to get married.”
She took on a produce role to make more money, having previously worked as both a bagger and a cashier.
Following her death, Haas said the mood at the Bastrop HEB was “solemn. You know, really heartbroken, sad. Angry. All those emotions.” He added HEB provided counseling and security at the store from open to close for employees, and that a conference room was available for questioning upstairs if any employees wished to speak with law enforcement personnel
Agustin Moreno had been working at HEB in 1996 for three or more years, in both the Georgetown and San Marcos store locations. He attended a four-day new employee training seminar, where he recalls meeting Stites.
He said he got to know her “a little bit” and remembered her as appearing eager for her upcoming wedding.
“She was a young lady who was excited to get married,” he said.
Moreno’s presence as a witness was contested by the defense team, due to misspelling of Moreno’s name on the prosecution’s witness sheet. Some exhibits presented as evidence listed his name as “Tino Mareno”; Moreno confirmed he went by Tino as a nickname, but agreed his last name was misspelled.
A separate exhibit presented as evidence from the Texas Rangers included the correct spelling of his last name, with the first name listed as “Tino.”
Under defense questioning, Moreno said he didn’t keep contact with Stites after the seminar and that the two never shared overly deep conversations or secrets. He said he remembered talking with two investigators and describing Sites as a “good, open person” with an outgoing personality. He said she never mentioned relationship issues to him.
Former friends, classmates testify
Sandy Sepulveda said she went to Smithville High School and was in the same grade as Stites but said the two did not graduate together after she opted to get her GED in place of graduating.
She said they were not close friends, but said she did Stites’ nails in high school. Sepulveda would do press-on nails for Stites, with Sepulveda saying Stites had “horrible nails.”
In the week before she died, Sepulveda said she bumped into Stites in the checkout line at HEB, with Stites seeming “so excited about the wedding.” She said Stites had either one final payment remaining for her wedding dress or had just paid it off and was about to pick it up.
“She seemed to be proud that she was marrying a police officer. That’s all she could talk about,” she said.
Sepulveda said she had never met Stites’ fiance, Jimmy Fennell, but added Stites spoke of him frequently and addressed him as if Sepulveda knew him.
Speulveda said Lt. Melissa Wolfe with the Texas Attorney General’s office spoke with her over the phone about general testimony questions. She said she didn’t recall discussing with Wolfe anything besides the press-on nails or seeing Stites at HEB.
During defense questioning, Sepulveda confirmed she was a member of the Facebook group, Stacey’s Avengers, since about 2019. She said she hasn’t posted but confirmed commenting on a post related to a list of witnesses published on a pro-Rodney Reed website.
She said in her comment she didn’t appreciate Reed supporters publishing her name on their website, adding if he was executed, she anticipates “potentially bad things happening in the community” and that it wouldn’t be difficult for supporters to find her address or personal information.
When asked if she was in support of Reed, she replied: “I don’t have a position,” adding she’s here for “justice.”
The defense team said with Stites working in HEB’s produce section leading up to her death, it would be unlikely Sepulveda bumped into her in the checkout line. She agreed and said she might have just stopped in line to chat with Stites as Stites was on her shift.
Diantha Lee worked in Smithville High School’s special education department in the 1990s and remembers Stites, who was a year younger than Lee’s daughter. Lee retired in 2012 after over 40 years of teaching.
She said Smithville was a small town and that her daughter was friends with Stites. She recalled Stites as very outgoing and friendly — “just an enjoyable kid to be around.”
Lee stopped into HEB one morning in April 1996 to pick up some fruit ahead of a teacher meeting, where she recalls bumping into Stites during her shift. She said Stites told Lee about her upcoming wedding and her excitement for the ceremony.
“I just left feeling good, feeling happy that she was doing well and excited and seemed very excited about her upcoming life,” Lee said.
Prior to this catchup conversation in HEB, she said she hadn’t seen Stites since 1994.
Lee didn’t recall whether she was a member of the Facebook group, Stacey’s Avengers. She is a member and the defense pointed to a comment she made condemning the GOP chairman for his supposed support and promotion of Rodney Reed.
Lee said she doesn’t recall the comment and that it didn’t sound familiar, adding: “And I would tell you if it did.” She continued to say she did feel it was inappropriate for the chairman to make those comments.
Regarding the timeline of that HEB run-in with Stites, Lee said it was either the Monday the week before her death or the week of her death, adding: “It was like one of those traumatic events that stay in her mind.”
She remembers caring for local families’ children so parents could attend Stites’ funeral. She couldn’t remember how she learned of Stites’ death, if it was through the news, her daughter or someone in Giddings.
When asked why she said Stites seemed excited about her wedding, Lee said it was just very apparent.
“She was just excited, bubbly more than ever, she was enthusiastic, happy to share with me and it just, I was given the impression that she was just over the moon about it.”
Sarah Palmer Smith knew Stacey Stites from Smithville High School, where she graduated a year ahead of Stites. The two became especially close after Smith’s graduation, saying they shared common friends and had taken a class together.
“We just hit it off, she was just easy to talk to and very friendly,” Smith said, adding: “She just had a spirit about her that would light up a room.”
She said she’d frequently come home from college on the weekends, and she and Stites would hang out whenever she was home. She recalled one time when she, Stites and another friend stayed in Smith’s sister’s San Marcos home for the weekend.
Smith left Texas in March 1995 and was gone for a year, living in Arkansas and Florida before returning to live with her parents in Smithville in March 1996. She said she didn’t maintain contact with Stites during that yearlong timespan, adding it was more difficult then without social media, cell phones or other means of contact.
When she came home, she said she and her mom spoke about Stites’ upcoming wedding and her job at HEB. Smith, working at Walmart at that time, had begun making plans to visit with Stacey now that she was home. She never saw her again before Stites’ death.
Wednesday’s testimonies included the supervisor of the DNA section of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s crime lab, Allison Heard.
When asked about the results for two beer cans found near Stites’ body, Heard said she couldn’t speak to older testing done, but did talk about a report in 2001 because the technology was similar to what they do today.
She said the report showed a “complex” result from one beer can, with at least 3 individuals who could not be excluded as contributors: David Hall, Ed Salmela and Stites herself.
Fennell’s mother, sister and first cousin testified Wednesday and discussed his character and their recollection of the days after Stites’ death. Thelma Fennell, Jimmy’s mother, characterized him as “respectful, caring, avoided any kind of conflict or trouble in school, always been a very good person.”
Fennell’s sister, Crystal Dohrman, said Stites’ death was “traumatic for the whole family.” Following defense questioning, Dohrman said she never asked whether Jimmy killed Stites, adding she believes Reed is guilty.
Stites’ sister, Debra Oliver, testified before court on Wednesday, telling the courtroom Fennell and Stites were “yin and yang” and cared for each other. She said she would have come forward if she had any belief that Fennell had committed the crime, but stood by her ongoing testimony that Reed was responsible.