WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court struggled Tuesday with an appeal by a man on death row who is challenging a ruling that says he waited too long to seek DNA testing that he says will exonerate him.
Rodney Reed was convicted of the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites, but a campaign from the Innocence Project led the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to grant a stay in November 2019, just five days before Reed's scheduled execution.
In his bid to get his conviction thrown out, Reed has seized on a signed affidavit from a member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang who was serving time at the same state penitentiary in Cuero, Texas, as Jimmy Fennell, a white former police officer who had been engaged to marry the 19-year-old Stites.
“I had to kill my nigger-loving fiancée," Fennell purportedly told the other inmate while serving 10 years for the kidnapping and rape of a woman during the course of his police work.
Stites had been strangled to death with her own belt, half of which the killer had left beside her on the dirt road where her body was found. No evidence from the crime scene connected Reed to the murder, but his sperm inside the woman's vagina. Reed, who is Black, claimed the two were having a consensual affair.
While Texas insists that Reed missed his window to seek DNA testing of the crime-scene evidence, an attorney for the 54-year-old says there is a due process interest in "proving your innocence with newly discovered evidence."
"It's not clear to me what purpose the statute of limitations is really serving here for Texas," Skadden Arps lawyer Parker Rider-Longmaid told the high court Tuesday. "Most states don't follow the same timeliness rules with these types of post-conviction DNA testing regimes as they do for their post-conviction habeas proceedings, for example, because they recognize ... the power of DNA testing to exonerate as well as to inculpate."
Rider-Longmaid pressed this point again in his rebuttal, emphasizing that evidence Reed has 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.”
“Those are all serious things we think the court should consider,” Rider-Longmaid continued. “So I think when you look at the fact that no one's going to be able to get a stay of execution without some showing, there's really not a concern of delay in cases like these.”
Texas Solicitor General Judd Edward Stone argued meanwhile Tuesday that adopting Reed’s stance could allow inmates “to essentially avail themselves of endless procedure.”
“Mr. Reed's rule ... involves that his claim accrues as soon as he chooses to stop litigating in the state court system — and neither a moment before nor a moment later — does a profound disservice to the typical DNA applicant, who is not fighting off a capital sentence, who has been accused and convicted of a crime, and who wants one of two things: either to resort to a constitutionally sound system that does not violate due process, or to resort to a federal form as soon as possible.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett questioned Stone on his stance siding with the Fifth Circuit Tuesday.
“The full run of the procedure includes the trial court and then the direct appeal and, in capital cases, the direct appeal to the CCA," the Trump appointee said, using an abbreviation for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. "And then we can have this dispute about whether the petition for rehearing is included or not.
"But I don't understand why he could exit at the trial court stage. Because the way [the law] is set up is to ensure that he's not deprived of a constitutional right erroneously is to give him the opportunity to appeal to the CCA, and let the CCA correct any mistake that the trial court.
“I just don't understand how that cause of action exists until the procedures have failed him,” Barrett added.
Chief Justice John Roberts pushed back meanwhile against Reed's lawyer.
“My concern with your position would be that it's going to put off the time when people can bring claims for access to evidence because the claim is not going to be complete until you have a final decision by the CCA under your view,” Roberts said.
In addition to the affidavit swearing that Stites' former fiancé confessed to her murder, Reed's attorneys have quoted the ex-officer's former police colleague, Curtis Davis, as saying Fennell gave different accounts of his whereabouts immediately after Stites went missing and at trial.
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