BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — Rodney Reed’s push to appeal his 1998 conviction of the killing of Stacey Stites could wrap up a day early, his defense team told a judge.
Originally, Reed’s attorneys had a full week to bring forward new evidence and witnesses before District Judge J.D. Langley. He will consider these and make recommendations to the Court of Criminal Appeals on whether Reed will get a new trial. Reed is facing the death penalty, but his execution has been delayed while the courts consider the evidence.
So far this week, Reed’s defense team has presented 17 witnesses — two forensic pathology experts and more than a dozen personal accounts of interactions with Reed, the victim Stacey Stites and her fiancé Jimmy Fennell.
Dozens of Reed’s supporters have filled the gallery each day of the proceedings, many of them wearing shirts that read “I Stand with Rodney Reed” and “Give Rodney Reed a New Trial.”
His brother Rodrick told reporters at the onset of the hearing, “All I know is that we stand on the truth, and I know my brother did not commit these crimes. There’s testimony, there’s medical and forensic science.”
Over the years since Stites’ death, Reed and his attorneys have asserted Fennell was responsible. Defense has brought forth several witnesses over the last few days who testified to seeing contentious interactions between Stites and Fennell; some even believed their relationship was “abusive.”
Stites’ family told us they disagree. They still keep in touch with Fennell and believe Reed is guilty.
“So far, I haven’t seen anything that changes my mind that there was absolutely no reason for Rodney Reed to have any type of DNA on my sister,” her sister Debra Oliver said on Tuesday.
Oliver emphasized she had not yet heard from any witnesses they deemed “credible.” She added they understood the first forensic expert, Dr. Andrew Baker, and his opinion but said, “it’s just that… an opinion.”
She also referenced other allegations of sexual assault against Reed and said her family had connected with the families of other women who spoke out against him.
“We are together; we are one voice,” Oliver said. “We are saying no more sexual assaults of women.”
Reed has not been indicted in any of these cases, but Oliver said she believed he would face more charges in these instances, if his conviction in her sister’s death was ever overturned.
Fennell arrived at the hearing room in Bastrop early Thursday morning to testify.
Fennell takes the stand
Moments after Jimmy Fennell was sworn in to testify on Thursday morning, defense attorney Andrew MacRae fired off a series of questions, accusing Fennell of violating his sworn oath to protect the public as an officer with Giddings Police and Georgetown Police.
He was referring to Fennell pleading guilty to kidnapping and improper sexual activity with a person in his custody in a separate case out of Georgetown.
MacRae then reminds him four years ago, Fennell exercised his Fifth Amendment right and refused to answer questions in a proceeding for the Reed case. He peppered Fennell with questions about whether anyone had promised him protection or immunity for testifying in this hearing. Throughout his questioning, MacRae questioned the role of the state’s attorneys in Fennell’s testimony, calling him their “star witness.”
When Fennell denies receiving anything in return, MacRae asks whether he understood anything he testified to today could be used against him later on.
The judge also addressed Fennell directly, to ensure he didn’t want to be represented by an attorney.
Fennell explained, “I didn’t feel I needed to, because I know the truth will come out.”
The defense also pressed Fennell on the details of two meetings he had with members of the prosecution team and an investigator with the state.
Then, MacRae asked Fennell specific questions about testimony given by witnesses earlier in the week. Fennell responded all of the witnesses were lying, who testified about Stites and Reed knowing one another or having an affair.
The defense asked, “Do you know why they would do that?”
He answered, “Besides attention? No.”
He said other witnesses, who testified to a contentious or even abusive relationship between himself and Stites, were also lying — insisting he and Stites were together all the time.
Then MacRae pressed Fennell on details from April 23, 1996. For instance, he wanted to know why Fennell cleaned out his bank account the morning before her body was was found, why Fennell sold the truck believed to have been involved in her murder and why he failed two polygraph tests.
The state objects here, noting polygraphs are not admissible evidence in a court of law, due to their unreliability. Later on in the day, Fennell would tell the court he felt guilty about “protecting” Stites by not driving her to work on the day she was killed, which could explain the test results.
In the 1998 trial, Fennell testified to being at home with Stites from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. but told the court he had no memory of when she left their apartment that morning.
“You were the prime suspect, you have no alibi, you failed two polygraphs, you asked for an attorney, and then you invoked your Fifth Amendment rights?” MacRae said.
Fennell also denies confessing to men in prison about killing Stites.
MacRae asserted, “You took a belt, and you wrapped it around a 19-year-old girl’s neck, and you killed her.”
Fennell interrupted to say, “That is incorrect…. They are just telling what they think they heard. They are lies.”
At one point MacRae asked Fennell again, “are you sure you don’t want an attorney?” and “we should believe you?”
Fennell’s response: “No matter how many people are lying, the truth is going to be the truth.”
On their cross examination, prosecution spent some time using Fennell’s accounts to oppose earlier defense witnesses accounts. For instance, in response to a woman named Ruby Volek testifying that she heard Fennell tell Stites, “if I ever catch you messing around on me, I will kill you and nobody will know I did it.” She said she heard this at a social event in Round Rock in 1995 where Fennell was working security.
However, his employment records filed with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement show he worked security for these kinds of events in 1993, before he ever met Stites. An attorney with the state, Travis Bragg, asked, “so, if someone said you were working security for SPJST in 1995 that’d be false, right?” and Fennell agreed.
As for the testimony given by a man named Brent Sappington, who said he heard a fight between the couple and possibly “throwing furniture” while visiting a nearby apartment, Fennell says they didn’t have much furniture. Plus, he said they spent more time in her mother’s apartment, also nearby.
“There was no doubt we loved each other greatly,” he said, calling them a “happy family of three.”
On his relationship with Stites
When asked about Stacey Stites, Fennell took a long pause before saying, “She was beautiful. We got along great. There was open communication always. She was athletic, I was athletic… we did things together. It was not just a romantic relationship, but a friendship also.”
He testified they were excited to be married and were already talking about having children.
Tensions began to mount, and Fennell’s testimony elicited an audible response from the gallery filled with Rodney Reed’s supporters, when he told the state’s attorney he never got to marry Stites “because Rodney Reed murdered her.”
Bragg began to ask about the morning Stites’ body was found. Fennell became emotional, putting his head in his hands and appears to fight back tears. He said the morning was “scary to say the least.”
“A piece of me was ripped out,” he said, appearing to begin crying. “My heart was ripped out of my chest at that moment.”
The prosecution could begin their case and start bringing witnesses to the stand as soon as Friday. They were scheduled to begin next Monday, and attorney Travis Bragg told the judge they were working to see which witnesses could appear earlier than planned.