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Supreme Court opens the door for DNA test of 1996 crime scene

Rodney Reed has spent nearly the last decade on death row fighting for a DNA test that he expects will show the woman he was convicted of killing was actually strangled by her police officer fiancé, who has apparently confessed while serving time for another crime.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Wednesday to throw out a ruling from the conservative Fifth Circuit, which had found it too late to order a DNA test that might exonerate a Black man on death row.

Rodney Reed and the Innocence Project say evidence from the roadside where Stacey Stites was found strangled will likely implicate Jimmy Fennell, a former police officer who had been engaged to marry the 19-year-old.

Fennell purportedly confessed to murdering Stites while later serving a 10-year prison sentence for another woman's kidnapping and rape, crimes he committed during the course of police work.

“I had to kill my nigger-loving fiancée," Fennell is alleged to have said, according to a signed affidavit from a member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang serving time with the former police officer at the state penitentiary in Cuero, Texas.

Stites' body was discovered on a dirt road on April 23, 1996, next to a piece of the belt used to strangle her. No evidence from the crime scene connected Reed to the murder, but his sperm was found inside her vagina. Reed said the two were having a consensual affair.

From death row in 2014, Reed petitioned to have authorities run a DNA test on the belt among 40 pieces of evidence. After the state court turned him down and that ruling was affirmed on appeal, Reed brought a federal complaint.

His victory Wednesday stems from the Fifth Circuit's finding that the two-year window available for Reed to bring such a lawsuit began running as soon as he filed his first motion in state court. The theory would mean that Reed ran out of time by waiting to exhaust his state court appeals.

Writing for the Supreme Court majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh called it nonsensical that Reed would be expected to simultaneously file suit in federal court while also challenging an ongoing state process.

"That parallel litigation would 'run counter to core principles of federalism, comity, consistency, and judicial economy,'" Kavanaugh wrote. "We see no good reason for such senseless duplication."

Reed’s attorney, Parker Rider-Longmaid with Skadden Arps, called the reversal from the high court “a critical step” toward getting the DNA test.

He noted that DNA testing has exonerated 568 people since 1989, and that 57% of these individuals were Black. Rider-Longmaid also questioned why Bastrop County District Attorney Bryan Goertz is determined not to test the crime-scene evidence.

"He should join us in the search for the truth, rather than blocking it," the attorney said of Goertz. "If DNA evidence exists, as it does here, it should be tested. It’s that simple.”

In addition to the affidavit swearing that Fennell confessed to killing Stites, Reed's attorneys have talked to Curtis Davis, a former police colleague of the ex-officer, who said the accounts Fennell gave of his whereabouts immediately after Stites went missing did not match what he later said at Reed's trial.

Rider-Longmaid pressed at oral arguments last year that the evidence gathered so far shows "that Fennell admitted to killing Stites because he discovered she was sleeping with a Black man, that Fennell threatened to kill Stites if he caught her cheating, that Fennell made inculpatory statements at Stites’ funeral, and that Fennell and Stites’ relationship was fraught.”

In a split from the majority opinion Wednesday, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that police matched Reed to the semen found in Stites' body only after Reed was arrested in the fall of 1996 for kidnaping and attempting to rape and murder another young woman. This crime was committed close to the road Stites typically drove to her job at a grocery store and occurred around the same time of night that the teen had disappeared.

After Reed was convicted of killing Stites, the jury in his penalty phase heard testimony from five women and one underage girl who all said Reed had raped them in the past. One of these women was the kidnapping victim from the fall of 1996.

Texas Solicitor General Judd Edward Stone warned the justices at arguments meanwhile that a reversal for Reed could allow inmates “to essentially avail themselves of endless procedure.”

Thomas appeared to echo this, saying that Reed has engaged in an “unending series of attempts to relitigate his guilt,” but each one has lacked a cohesive theory of innocence. On the matter of jurisdiction, the justice disagreed with his colleagues in the majority. 

“Reed’s action presents no original Article III case or controversy between him and the district attorney,” Thomas wrote. “Because the Court erroneously holds that the District Court had jurisdiction over Reed’s action, I respectfully dissent.”

Justice Samuel Alito dissented as well from the majority.

“There is room for debate about exactly when Reed’s DNA testing claim accrued, but in my view, the notion that this did not take place until rehearing was denied is clearly wrong,” Alito wrote, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Reed was initially set to be executed in November 2019, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay with just five days to spare. The high court took up Reed's case in April 2022 after turning it down in 2020.

Stone did not immediately return a request for comment on the ruling.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal

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