HOUSTON (CN) – A Texas appeals court on Friday stayed the execution of a black man who has been on death row for more than 20 years for the rape and murder of a white woman. His attorneys say it is “scientifically impossible” to pin the killing on him based on new evidence.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Rodney Reed’s habeas claim, remanding his case to the trial court to vet his claims that prosecutors did not share evidence proving his innocence with his defense team and presented false testimony.
The stay came shortly after the state parole board recommended that Governor Greg Abbott delay Reed’s execution, set for Nov. 20, by 120 days.
A Bastrop County jury convicted Reed, 51, of capital murder in May 1998 for the murder of 19-year-old grocery store employee Stacy Stites.
Stites did not show up for her early morning shift at the store on April 23, 1996 and her body was found that afternoon in the brush next to a dirt road in Bastrop County.
She had been strangled to death and marks on her neck matched her belt. Half the belt was found on the roadside.
Reed was charged with capital murder in April 1997 after sperm found from a swab of Stites’ vagina matched a sample Reed’s DNA on file with the Texas Department of Public Safety.
In his trial, prosecutors claimed as Stites drove her fiancé Jimmy Fennell’s pickup to work, Reed had abducted her. They theorized that he may have ambushed her at a railroad crossing or stop light, raped and strangled her in the truck, then dumped her body and left half her belt on the side of the road pointing to her body.
Reed’s lead attorney, Bryce Benjet at the Innocence Project in New York, says in court filings that no DNA evidence other than Reed’s sperm connected him to the pickup or the site where Stite’s body was found. They say he was having an affair with Stites and had consensual sex with her in the days before her murder.
Reed’s attorneys also say courts have ignored evidence pointing to Fennell as the killer.
They claim three leading forensic pathologists found the state’s theory of Reed’s guilt “medically and scientifically impossible” because based on their review of crime scene photos, Stites had been murdered hours before Fennell claimed she had left their apartment to drive to work.
Fennell was a policeman for the Giddings Police Department when Stites was killed. Reed’s attorneys claim prosecutors suppressed a statement from one of his police academy classmates, who stated she had overheard him say he would strangle his girlfriend with a belt if he ever caught her cheating on him.
Fennell was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he was found guilty of raping a woman in his custody in 2007 when he was a Georgetown, Texas policeman.
Reed’s attorneys have submitted affidavits from a former prison inmate who claims Fennell bragged about killing Stites. And they say statements from Stites’ cousin and coworkers corroborate Reed’s claims they were having an affair.
Before the appeals court intervened, Abbott was under pressure to stop the execution from celebrities and state lawmakers. Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil, Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna had urged the governor to intervene due to the risk of Texas executing an innocent man. On Nov. 5, 26 state lawmakers sent Abbott a letter asking him to grant Reed a reprieve.