BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — Dozens of witnesses have now taken the stand in Rodney Reed’s evidentiary hearing, and testimony continued on Wednesday.
Reed’s attorneys have spent the last two days presenting new evidence they say points to Reed’s innocence and implicates another man in the 1996 abduction, rape and murder of Stacey Stites. The state’s attorneys have responded by asking the court to question the credibility of the new witness testimony presented throughout this hearing — and their motivation for coming forward all these years later.
Witness concerned about abuse
First, a woman named Susan Hugen, who told the court she worked with Stites at the HEB grocery store in Bastrop in 1996, took the stand. Hugen testified that Stites introduced her to Rodney Reed in the produce section of the store, calling him her “good friend.” She adds that they appeared to be “flirty.”
After seeing early coverage about the case and hearing the prosecution argue that Stites and Reed did not know one another, she said, “I would have stood up in court and said that’s not true.” Hugen then explained that she did relay this information to a uniformed police officer, who was providing security at HEB at the time.
Hugen also told the court about an interaction she said she had with Stites and her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell. The witness said Stites went “white as a ghost” when her fiancé pulled up in his truck. She was concerned about abuse in their relationship after seeing possible markings on Stites’ body that she says “looked like finger prints.”
“That’s Jimmy up there yelling at Stacey – it goes on all the time.”Brent Sappington, witness testifying on Wednesday
Upon cross-examination, prosecution asked the witness about her diagnoses of multiple sclerosis.
“You are aware multiple sclerosis can affect someone’s memory?” they asked.
“Short-term memory,” she responded.
They also repeatedly asked Hugen about why she didn’t relay all of these details during a conversation with an investigator for the prosecution. Hugen insisted she wasn’t.
When asked why she came to testify, she got emotional: “‘Cause I wanted to do the right thing for Stacey.”
Forensic expert testimony
Kentucky medical examiner and forensic pathologist Dr. Gregory Davis called into the courtroom provided virtual testimony through a Zoom call.
On Tuesday, the prosecution objected to him appearing before the court –noting that the court heard hours of detailed testimony from another forensic pathologist, Dr. Andrew Baker, on Monday. They argued the testimony from Dr. Davis could be considered “improper bolstering” of the former testimony.
The judge, however, allowed Dr. Davis to give his opinions about the case. Davis agreed with Baker, saying he disagreed with several conclusions drawn in the original case and testimony given by people in the 1998 trial: from the dating of bruises found on Stites’ body to the timeline of her death, as seen by indicators such as rigor mortis (the stiffness of her body) and apparent lividity (discoloration of the skin due to the pooling of blood at the lowest point on her body).
Dr. Davis continually noted that their field “isn’t an exact science.” He agreed with Dr. Baker’s testimony from Monday that, in his opinion, the original window of 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. for Stites’ time of death was too narrow. He said that if he had he been consulted on this case, he would have told investigators, “it had to have happened sometime previous.”
He goes on to say, “These findings just don’t make sense to me.”
Then, Dr. Davis and the defense begin walking through a report that defense later explained was a summary of Dr. Baker’s findings that 14 experts have “signed onto” in agreement. Mr. Baker testified in this hearing on Monday.
At one point, the judge interrupted the defense to ask, “Is this nothing more than a summary of your argument?”
“You can’t bootstrap your argument into the case through evidence,”Judge J.D. Langley, speaking to Rodney Reed’s defense counsel
Then, he asks who prepared this summary. Jane Pucher, an attorney for Reed with the Innocence Project, responded that she and another attorney, Barry Scheck, prepared the summary.
Judge J.D. Langley became visibly frustrated, before saying, “This is your report, prepared by you and your staff. This is not evidence.”
Pucher told the judge that Dr. Davis, and all 14 experts, reviewed Dr. Baker’s findings themselves — not just a summary. Still, the judge requested that the defense keep their questioning of Dr. Davis to his opinion.
“You can’t bootstrap your argument into the case through evidence,” he said.
Ultimately, Dr. Davis acknowledged there could be pathologists who disagreed, but he said that doesn’t change his opinions or his assertion that Dr. Baker’s conclusions are “generally accepted” in their community of expertise.
More personal accounts
After lunch, the defense brought six different witnesses to the stand to testify about interactions they say they had with Stites and her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell.
The defense, and Reed himself, have asserted their belief that Fennell was responsible for Stites’ death.
A man named Richard Scroggins told the court he witnessed a fight in the HEB parking lot between two people, who he would later learn were Stites and Fennell. He was passing through town on a short trip and didn’t know them personally.
He said he heard Fennell call the woman, a “lying f******* b****,” along with other profanities. He also said he remembers Fennell addressing him and using profanities, as well.
Scroggins told the court he thinks he repressed the memory because it was upsetting, but said he later put together it was Fennell after seeing an Austin Chronicle story around 2005.
The prosecutors asked later asked him whether the article put Fennell in a bad light. He responded that he he was left with the impression that Fennell was suspected in Stites’ murder.
The next witness says his father lived below Stites and Fennell in their Giddings apartment. Once, while visiting in 1996, Brent Sappington heard a commotion from the apartment above.
“Sounded like tables and chairs being turned over, and screaming and hollering,” Sappington said.
His father responded, “That’s Jimmy up there yelling at Stacey – it goes on all the time.”
Sappington said his father came forward to an assistant district attorney and a police officer with what he knew. At the time, he said, “They told him they already had their suspect.”
Prosecution again questioned this witnesses’ account, asking, “You remember this particular argument on this particular day, but you don’t remember if it was [daytime] or not?”
Sappington’s wife, Vicki, also took the stand. She explained they didn’t come forward because it was word “against a cop’s.”
At one point, the defense objected to something this witness said as “hearsay,” the legal term for rumors that can’t be verified. They offered this objection several times during testimony on Wednesday. While expert witnesses can testify to their opinions, non-expert witnesses in a case can only speak to what they observed, under the rule of law.
Even still, the judge said he would allow it “for the purposes of this hearing… but I don’t think it’s going to make it into a trial before a jury.”
He later clarified that statement was not indicative of any decisions he had made on recommending a new trial for Reed. He stated he instead meant to explain the Court of Criminal Appeals has given him the authority to determine what evidence is admissible and inadmissible.
“There are certain times I will allow stuff in to create a complete record for Court of Criminal Appeal. This was one of those times,” he said.
The next witness to take the stand was Cynthia Schmidt, former police dispatcher at the Giddings Police Department, where Fennell worked. She told the court, at Stites’ visitation, she heard Fennell say, “At least the b**** got to wear the d*** dress” — referring to Stites’ being buried in her wedding dress.
Schmidt also testified that she never liked being alone with Fennell at work because he made her “uncomfortable.” After Stites’ death, this witness said she contacted the Texas Rangers, but never heard back.
Then, Alicia Slater testified that she worked at HEB with Stites’ during the spring of 1996. Slater said once, in the break room during a conversation about her upcoming wedding to Jimmy Fennell, Stites told her she was “sleeping with a black man named Rodney.”
Slater told the court that she didn’t tell officers about this conversation because she was 18-years-old, about to graduate high school, planned to move away from Bastrop, and “did not want to get involved.”
Years later, she saw a KXAN news article that Reed was scheduled for execution and says that’s when she came forward — feeling morally compelled to take action. Slater then answered questions about her appearance on the “Dr. Phil Show” special on the Rodney Reed case in October of 2019.
At the end of the day, Stites’ cousin Calvin Horton, testified that he saw Reed and Stites together at a Dairy Queen in October of 1995, months before her death.
KXAN’s Avery Travis is in Bastrop for the third day of the hearing and will be updating this article with the latest details as they develop. She’ll provide live updates from the hearing in the Twitter thread below.