BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — Now 23 years after his original conviction, Rodney Reed’s attorneys said they have new evidence and witnesses to bring before a judge in Bastrop County — that they say will cast doubt on the state’s original case against him.
Reed has spent more than two decades on death row for the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites.
Over the years, Reed has maintained his innocence, as his defense team made several efforts to bring forward new claims to prove it. In November 2019, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Reed’s scheduled execution date and remanded the case back to a Bastrop trial court for “further factual development,” according to court documents.
That led to the a two-week long evidentiary hearing that began Monday, where Judge J.D. Langley is set to make a recommendation for the higher courts after hearing from both sides.
When Rodney Reed entered the hearing room, a crowd of his family and advocates for his case stood, in obvious support for him. He wore a red and white-striped jump suit and handcuffs, appearing calm as he spoke with his attorneys.
The hearing began with fiery opening statements and initial motions from both Reed’s defense attorney, Andrew MacRae, and one of the prosecutors from Reed’s original trial, Lisa Tanner.
In fact, Tanner appears on the list of witnesses being called to testify, so the defense team’s first motion was to try and exclude her from the hearing room until she’s called to the stand — the usual procedure under legal rules of evidence. The judge, however, allowed Tanner to stay.
Defense attorneys then laid out their main objectives in presenting new evidence and bringing new witnesses forward: to prove Reed’s actual innocence, to make a claim the state presented false evidence in the original trial, and to make a Brady claim against prosecution. A Brady claim asserts the prosecution team did not turn over all exculpatory evidence that could have exonerated or been favorable to the defendant.
At the end of June, Reed’s defense team filed court documents accusing prosecutors of withholding information at his trial from witnesses that spoke of a possible consensual relationship between Reed and Stites. A critical feature of the state’s case at Reed’s original trial was that Reed and the 19-year-old victim did not have a relationship at the time of the killing.
Prosecutors with the Office of Attorney General fired back to those claims, noting they had “no legal obligation to turn over” the witness statements in question, but they did anyway.
Court records from the previous hearing in Bastrop on July 6 show the defense asked Judge Langley to open the entire prosecution file. However, the judge declined, saying, “I’m not going to blow this whole thing wide open two weeks before the scheduled hearing that the Court of Criminal Appeals has said, ‘We’re not giving you any more time.”
MacRae presented this request again on Monday to the judge, saying, “We don’t take their [the prosecution’s] word for anything, and we are not required to.”
During opening statements, the defense also said they would be claiming a Laches defense, which means they will argue an unreasonable delay could have played a role in the case.
MacRae said the state’s original theory was “simple,” but later described it as “flimsy” and “flawed.” He argued the state took the testimony of the medical examiner on the case, Dr. Roberto Bayardo, as “gospel” because it fit their theory.
He even said the state’s attorneys “lost sight of their duty” to justice in this case.
When Lisa Tanner stood to give the opening statements on behalf of the state, she began by reading a quote from Reed himself. In an earlier interview, following Stites’ death, Reed denied knowing the victim aside from the news coverage of her death.
Tanner proceeded to hammer home the point that “the defendant’s story has evolved over the years.” She laid out four instances where she claims the defense argued different times of death in the case. She even called their case “internally inconsistent” with itself, and asked the court to remember and consider that as they evaluate the credibility of this new evidence.
She contrasted this characterization of the defense with the state’s own argument.
“It’s not new, novel or sexy,” she said. “Our evidence is not new and not anything we haven’t been saying for 25 years.”
First witness to take the stand: Dr. Andrew Baker
The defense called Dr. Andrew Baker, the chief medical examiner in Hennepin County, Minneapolis and a past president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. Dr. Baker gained national attention as the medical examiner who ruled the death of George Floyd in 2020 was caused by cardiopulmonary arrest complicated by the way police restrained him — meaning his heart stopped.
Dr. Baker noted he had “serious qualms” about the original testimony given in Reed’s case by Bayardo, such as the time of Stites’ death and the length of time sperm can persist inside a body. He also expressed doubt about testimony that was made regarding the timing of bruises on the victim and the lividity of her body — meaning, the pooling of blood at the lowest point in the body after death.
Dr. Baker talked through a series of photos and videos of the victim’s body, along with the location and position in which she was found. While these graphic images were displayed on a projector screen, one of Stites’s two sisters in the courtroom gallery could be seen covering her face with her hand.
By answering questions from the defense, he said he believed the jury would have heard that Stites could have died much earlier than the original 3-5 a.m. time frame purported in the original trial, “had proper testimony been given then.”
Lisa Tanner cross-examined Dr. Baker on behalf of the state. She asked him a series of questions about the weather and high humidity on the day of Stites’ death in 1996, the effect of a wool blanket placed on the body for a period of a few hours and the location of the body in relation to the sun.
“The sun was basically baking her?” Tanner asked.
The witness responded, “‘Baking’ is not a medical term, but she was in direct sunlight.”
The prosecution asked Dr. Baker to comment on the effect these factors could have on speeding up a body’s decomposition process and the process of ‘rigor mortis’ — meaning the stiffening of a body after death.
“So, no two bodies develop it [rigor mortis] at the same time?” Tanner asked.
The state also spent a significant amount of time questioning Baker on the attire of the victim at the time of her death. Tanner outlined that Stites appeared to be dressed and ready for her shift at HEB, before she was killed and her appearance was altered. She noted that Stites had clearly changed out of what she had been seen wearing the night before. She also noted that a hair barrette and earrings were found on or near the victim’s body. Ultimately, re-emphasized the assertion that Stites’ time of death was around 3 a.m., when she would have been on her way into work.
In response to Dr. Baker casting doubt on Bayardo’s original testimony, Tanner pointed out that Baker’s testimony was based on an analysis of old photographs. She asked whether Dr. Bayardo was “the only person who can definitely say what they saw,” and Dr. Baker confirmed this.
However, the witness claimed that “any competent Medical Examiner, familiar with the literature” would have had similar concerns about some parts of the original testimony.
The prosecution also spent time laying out what they called “contextual evidence” of Stites’ sexual assault. For instance, Tanner described how Stites’ shirt was off, her pants splayed open and zipper broken, along with the sperm found inside her body.
Still, Baker insisted that he believes original testimony, which noted sperm can only persist inside a body for around a day, was false.
Two more witnesses
The testimony from Dr. Baker lasted nearly all day, but two more witnesses took the stand before the proceedings on Monday were finished.
First, a former Bastrop County Deputy named Charles Wayne Fletcher testified that he knew Jimmy Fennell from work and socially.
Fennell was Stites’ fiancé, and their wedding was set for just weeks after her death. In the past, Reed’s defense attorneys — and Reed himself — have pointed to Fennell as the true killer.
Fletcher told the court that at a barbecue in 1996, just months or even weeks before Stites’ death, Fennell admitted to knowing his fiancée was having an affair with a black man. Fletcher testified that Fennell used a racial slur when telling him this.
The prosecution pressed Fletcher on why, especially as a law enforcement official himself, he didn’t come forward with this information sooner. Fletcher responded that he “felt like I couldn’t go against local law enforcement,” and also referenced fears for his family who remained in Bastrop.
The final witness to take the stand, Ruby Volek, stated that she met Stites and Fennell a few months before her death at a social event in Round Rock. Volek testified that before the event, she was helping Stites sign up for a life insurance policy — which is what this witness did professionally at the time.
During their encounter, Volek said Stites’ made a comment about being too “young” for life insurance, to which Volek heard Stites’ fiancé respond, “if I ever catch you messing around on me, I will kill you and nobody will know I did it.”
Volek said she made several attempts to contact one of Reed’s defense attorneys years ago, after reading about developments in the case in the paper. She told the court that she never heard back.
The evidentiary hearing is expected to last two weeks.
According to a witness list obtained by KXAN, Reed’s defense team plans to bring forth more than 40 individuals to testify — some of whom were never mentioned or associated with Reed’s original Bastrop trial in 1998. Included in the names is Arthur Snow, a former state prison inmate who served time with Fennell in 2010. According to a sworn affidavit, Snow said Fennell confessed to killing his fiancée.
The defense also plans to call Fennell to the stand, according to the list.
On Saturday, just days before this hearing, Reed spoke over the phone to a crowd of supporters gathered in Bastrop. He told them he was “optimistic” about the hearing.
His mother Sandra and brother Rodrick were among the speakers at the rally, joining criminal justice reform advocates and even a death row exoneree from Florida.
“Because hopefully, it’ll end here, right here in Bastrop with justice, not just for Rodney, but for Stacey, for you and me and everybody involved,” Reed’s brother said at the rally.