AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – A federal judge refused to grant habeas relief to a man on death row who claims that he had consensual sex with the woman whom he was convicted of raping and murdering in 1996.
In April 1996, the body of 19-year-old Stacey Stites was found on the side of a country road in Bastrop County, Texas. Investigators concluded that she had been strangled with a belt.
Stites’ fiance Jimmy Fennell, who was a Giddings police officer at the time, had been the primary suspect out of a pool of roughly 30 men, even though he volunteered a blood sample that excluded him as a match to the semen found in and on Stites’ body.
Though Fennell was later cleared as a suspect in Stites’ murder, he was soon implicated in another crime during his subsequent stint at the Georgetown, Texas, police department. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to kidnapping and improper sexual contact with a woman in his custody. Fennell is serving 10 years in state prison and was sued civilly for that crime.
Meanwhile, the Stites investigation led Giddings police to Rodney Reed, who had been 29 at the time of the murder.
Though Reed denied that he knew Stites, police matched the DNA found on Stites to Reed’s sample in the state database.
A jury convicted Reed of capital murder in 1998, giving him the death sentence.
In one of Reed’s state-level appeals, he claimed that he could have been exonerated if the lead prosecutor had revealed the results of DNA tests that the state performed on beer cans found near the murder scene.
That report said the DNA on the beer cans could have come from several sources, including Stites; David Hall, another Giddings police officer who was friendly with Fennell; or Bastrop police investigator Ed Selmala, one of the first to arrive on the murder scene.
Years later, Selmala’s suicide prompted an investigation into his possible involvement in the murder.
But the court found that this withheld report would not have helped Reed, since tests performed by his own defense team found that the DNA on the cans could not have come from Stites, Hall or Selmala.
Reed’s subsequent attempts at habeas relief have alleged that he and Stites had consensual sex several days before her murder.
Reed said he lied about their affair to investigators because he did not want them to consider him a suspect.
Relatives of Reed have signed affidavits stating they had seen Stites and Reed together, or otherwise knew that the pair were dating.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin found this testimony unconvincing, however, noting that many of the so-called witnesses had been convicted of felonies and misdemeanors, and that their statements did not support the facts.
Reed’s federal habeas application was on Austin’s docket for more than 10 years before the judge recommended denial Friday.
“Because I have no desire to be complicit in the execution of an innocent man, over this ten year period I have carefully read and re-read the trial transcript,” Austin wrote. “I have reviewed every piece of evidence that the parties have submitted since the trial. I have watched the crime scene videotape, and viewed every scrap of the record. I have read every single page of each submission Reed has filed. And in none of this can I find a basis to believe that Rodney Reed is innocent of the rape and murder of Stacey Stites.”