AUSTIN (KXAN) — Less than two months after a district judge recommended death row inmate Rodney Reed should not get a new trial, Reed’s attorneys filed another appeal.
Reed has spent more than two decades behind bars, convicted of the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop County.
Over a two-week evidentiary hearing this summer, his defense team brought new witnesses to the stand and argued his innocence before the 21st District Court in Bastrop. In November, presiding Judge J.D. Langley delivered his recommendation to let Reed’s conviction stand and deny any relief. He detailed his belief that many of the witnesses lacked credibility and that Reed’s defense team had not “proven by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted him of capital murder.”
His recommendation was to be sent to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which has the power to make the decision to overturn Reed’s conviction. The case is still pending before the high court.
According to court records filed Friday, Reed’s team has filed what’s called a “successor petition” for a writ of habeas corpus, in addition to the separate writ for habeas corpus filed before the evidentiary hearing. A writ of habeas corpus is a legal term for requesting that someone be brought before the court to determine if the person’s detention is lawful. Another “successor” petition can be filed if it indicates newly discovered evidence.
Their new filing claims the prosecution team had “new material” that pointed to a relationship between Reed and Stites and that this evidence came to light “on the eve” of the summer’s evidentiary hearing. KXAN investigators originally reported on this claim in July.
Reed’s defense claims that before his original trial in 1998 the prosecution withheld statements indicating three of Stites’ colleagues knew of a relationship between Reed and the victim.
The information “could not have been more pivotal,” Reed’s defense argues in the filing.
The new information came in disclosures received by Reed’s defense attorney Andrew MacRae from the prosecution on June 25. The Bastrop hearing began July 19.
In one disclosure the prosecution said it had received a witness statement from a former H-E-B worker named Suzan Hugen. Hugen told prosecutors she had met Reed and Stites together at the store, Stites told her they were friends, and they were “flirting” during the encounter, according to a court exhibit.
Prosecutors provided a second disclosure, which, they said, contained witness statements prepared by the original prosecution team prior to the 1998 trial. The prosecutor that sent the disclosures to MacRae said he first discovered them just days prior to June 25.
The original prosecution’s summaries indicated an H-E-B employee named Ron Haas said he had heard rumors that Reed would visit Stites at the store. A second grocery store employee, Andrew Cardenas, said a third employee, Jose Coronado, said he saw Stites and Reed speaking and “got the impression” they were friends. However, Coronado denied that conversation ever took place.
“This withheld information is crucial because it demonstrates that the key factual theory of the State’s capital murder case against Mr. Reed – that he had to have kidnapped Ms. Stites because the two were strangers – was false,” according to Reed’s latest writ. “This information, moreover, directly supports Mr. Reed’s contention that is central to his defense at trial – and in the intervening decades – that he and Ms. Stites were, in fact, having a consensual sexual relationship.”
The new petition also makes the claim that prosecutors presented “false scientific testimony” during the summer hearing.
After Langley released his recommendation, Stites’ sister Debra Oliver told KXAN they were pleased with his decision.
“My family has been tortured and retraumatized by this nightmare for 25 years and it is time for justice to prevail,” she said. “In 25 years, no tangible evidence of a relationship between Stacey and the defendant has ever materialized. That is because no relationship ever existed.”
Prior to his decision, at closing arguments for the hearing, Oliver had called the proceedings an “atrocious violation” of the writ process.
Reed’s family has continued to support his innocence, and his brother Roderick told KXAN at the time, “If this time we can get a free and fair trial, Rodney Reed will free himself. The evidence will free Rodney Reed.”
Referring to the latest filing, Jane Pucher, Senior Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project and one of Mr. Reed’s attorneys, said in a statement, “The prosecution’s concealment of statements from Stacey Stites’s co-workers and neighbors is a textbook example of a Brady violation. The constitutional violation is as crystal clear as the remedy: Rodney Reed’s conviction and death sentence must be overturned.”
KXAN investigators are reaching out to the parties in this case regarding the new filing and will update this article when more information becomes available.