BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — The state’s attorneys brought 10 witnesses to the stand on Wednesday, accelerating the pace of an ongoing hearing Rodney Reed’s case.
Attorneys for Reed and for the state have gathered before a judge in Bastrop County each day since last Monday, as the defense appeals Reed’s conviction in the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites.
The defense is asking the judge to consider what they call new evidence in the case. Last week, they brought 18 witnesses in total — two of them considered experts — to support their claims. This week, the state began its case to support the original conviction and keep Reed on death row.
At the end of the day on Tuesday, a witness from the Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab testified to a DNA analysis she completed in 2014 on this case. She talked through each of the evidence samples from the original case — such as hair samples, vaginal and rectal swabs, as well as stains from Stites’ pants, underwear and a back brace. She told the court that DNA results “could not exclude” Rodney Reed as a match for many of the samples, meaning there was a link identified.
On Wednesday, the supervisor of the DNA section of the crime lab, Allison Heard, began her testimony about several different reports involving DNA testing in this case.
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.
Later on, DPS updated their guidelines and so lab analysts went back to to evaluate older cases “to ensure statistics were applied appropriately” — even some cases with convictions, including Reed’s. After that review, she said the results from the beer were still identifiable as a “mixture,” but they couldn’t make any comparisons.
The defense asked Heard who called for new analysis on this case in 2016, and she said it was Matt Ottoway with the Office of the Attorney General. Her interpretation was completed and reported in September 2019.
Jimmy Fennell’s family takes the stand
Stacey Stites’ body was found just weeks before she was supposed to marry Jimmy Fennell.
Fennell’s mother, sister and first cousin took the stand on Wednesday and testified about his character and about the days following Stites’ death.
Thelma Fennell, Jimmy’s mother, told the court her son was “respectful, caring, avoided any kind of conflict or trouble in school, always been a very good person.”
She then detailed the wedding plans going on in the weeks leading up to Stites’ death, from the ceremony music to plans to go pick out flowers.
Attorneys for the state placed a photo of the couple, taken at his police academy graduation, on the screen for the court. Thelma Fennell, Jimmy’s mother, referenced the photo and said Stites’ was proud of him. She described them as “kids in love.”
Thelma then told the court on April 23, 1996, she got a call from her son, who she remembers sobbing, “Somebody took my baby.”
Fennell’s sister, Crystal Dohrman, told the court it was “traumatic for the whole family.”
The defense asked her if she had ever asked whether Jimmy killed his fiancé. Dohrman said she didn’t have to ask him that, insisting that she believes Rodney Reed is guilty.
Rodney Reed and his defense team have pointed to Fennell as being responsible for her death.
Earlier this week, state’s attorneys reminded the court that Fennell was considered a suspect in her homicide investigation. However, law enforcement testified earlier that “logistics” of his involvement and DNA test results ultimately led them to clear Fennell as a suspect.
Stacey Stites’ sister testifies
Debra Oliver was three years older than her sister Stacey. Under victim’s rights laws, she and her other sister Crystal have been sitting in on the proceedings nearly every day since the beginning of the hearing. For the most part, they have sat quietly in the jury box. Oliver did with media last week to say she still believed Reed was guilty and had not heard any new or credible testimony to change her mind.
Oliver told the court she was not inside the courtroom for Jimmy Fennell’s testimony last Thursday. However, Crystal could be seen crying throughout his time on the stand.
On Wednesday, Oliver took the stand herself, testifying about her close relationship with Stacey.
“Nobody knows me like my sister,” she said.
Oliver said she was supposed to be Stacey’s maid-of-honor and the last conversation they had was about her wedding to Fennell. “
If she had any hesitations, she would have asked me about it. She would have asked for my advice,” Oliver insisted. In fact, Oliver recounted a fond memory from the months before her sister died, when the two women had a “girls night” in Corpus Christi.
“I was really glad I told her I loved her,” Oliver said.
Recounting the morning Stacey’s body was found, her sister said she remembers their mother rocking back and forth, repeating, “My baby, my baby, my baby.” She also remembers sitting on a bench with Fennell, who she said felt guilty for not driving Stacey to work that morning.
“I was saying, ‘I think it’s going to be okay.’ He said, ‘I don’t think its going to be okay.’”
Jimmy told her he had already seen the truck, and she said he believed “something really bad” had happened. Of the group of family and friends who had gathered at her mom’s apartment, Oliver remembers several taking Xanax because they “were all a mess.”
“Nobody knows me like my sister.”Debra Oliver, sister of Stacey Stites
Defense attorney Andrew MacRae asked Oliver if Stacey and Jimmy were different, referring to descriptions of her as “bubbly” and him as “quiet.”
“Were they opposites?” he asked.
“No, I’d say they were yin and yang,” she replied.
MacRae also asked if her sister had friends Oliver might not have known about, to which Oliver said, “I can’t say that I know every person she has ever met — no.”
MacRae said, after seeing Oliver in court proceedings for years, the first time the spoke was Wednesday morning, when he told her they have the same goal: justice.
Oliver said she was seeking justice for her sister and added that “everybody has their own perception.”
Still, she insisted to the court that if she had any indication Fennell was guilty, she would have come forward.
“If I believed that Jimmy had done this, I would have been the first in line saying he had done this,” Oliver said.
KXAN’s Avery Travis will have live updates below from the Bastrop courtroom.