Texas Death Row Case Warrants a New Look, Sotomayor Argues

WASHINGTON (CN) — Shedding light on a death-row case turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Rodney Reed has presented compelling evidence that he was railroaded for the death of a white police officer’s young fiancée.

A Bastrop County jury convicted Reed of capital murder in May 1998 for the murder of Stacy Stites — a 19-year-old whose body was found April 23, 1996, in the brush next to a dirt road. She had been strangled to death with her own belt, half of which the killer had left beside her on the roadside.

Rodney Reed waves to his family in the Bastrop County District Court on Oct. 13, 2017. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File)

Reed, who is black, initially denied knowing Stites. After a swab of Stites’ vagina showed that his sperm was inside the woman, however, Reed claimed the two were having an affair.

Ten years after Stites’ killing meanwhile, her fiancé Jimmy Fennell was sentenced to 10 years for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman he had encountered on police duty.

Reed was supposed to be executed in November 2019, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay, with five days to spare, based on evidence from the Innocence Project.

“For a period of time, Fennell was incarcerated in the same facility as a man named Arthur Snow, Jr., then affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood,” Sotomayor wrote Monday about the case. “In a sworn affidavit signed late October 2019, Snow recounted a conversation in which Fennell said that his ex-fiancée ‘had been sleeping around with a black man behind his back.’ ‘Toward the end of the conversation,’ Snow attested, ‘[Fennell] said confidently, “I had to kill my n***r-loving fiancée.”‘”

Reed separately petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which the Supreme Court turned down Monday, but Sotomayor underscored that other avenues of relief remain available to him.

“In my view, there is no escaping the pall of uncertainty over Reed’s conviction,” she wrote. “Nor is there any denying the irreversible consequence of setting that uncertainty aside. But I remain hopeful that available state processes will take care to ensure full and fair consideration of Reed’s innocence — and will not allow the most permanent of consequences to weigh on the nation’s conscience while Reed’s
conviction remains so mired in doubt.”

Experts for Reed have previously noted that sperm samples matching Reed’s found in Stites’ body could have been from sexual relations the night before her death, since sperm can remain intact inside a vaginal tract for up to 26 hours. Additionally, Reed has previously secured testimony from Fennell’s former police colleague Curtis Davis, saying that the testimony by Fennell at trial differed sharply from what he said about his whereabouts initially after Stites went missing.

Sotomayor called this a substantial body of evidence that, if true, “casts doubt on the veracity and scientific validity of the evidence on which Reed’s conviction rests.”

“Misgivings this ponderous should not be brushed aside even in the least consequential of criminal cases; certainly they deserve sober consideration when a capital conviction and sentence hang in the balance,” she wrote.

Bryce Benjet, a senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment Monday.

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