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Untested DNA is central to death-row appeal taken up by high court

The case focused on the statute of limitations for post-conviction appeals is one of two granted certiorari on Monday.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court took up two cases Monday, including an appeal from a Black man who says he was having a consensual affair with a police officer's white fiancee before she was killed.

Rodney Reed was handed the death sentence in 1996 for the rape and murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas. Though investigators found Reed's semen inside Stites' vaginal tract, Reed has assembled evidence that their relationship was a consensual albeit clandestine one while she was engaged to marry Jimmy Fennell, a white police officer.

Evidence from the crime scene where Stites' body was found was never tested for DNA, and Reed also notes that Fennell was convicted of kidnapping and sexual assault in a separate case involving a woman who called for police assistance. Fennell served 10 years in prison for that crime and denies that he had any involvement in Stites' death.

"Rodney Reed has steadfastly maintained his innocence for more than 20 years, and a substantial body of evidence has emerged supporting his innocence," Jane Pucher, senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, said in an email Monday on behalf of Reed's legal team. "But Texas and the Texas courts have refused to allow DNA testing of key crime-scene evidence, including the ligature handled by the perpetrator in the commission of the crime. … We look forward to having the Supreme Court consider our arguments."

In federal court, judges have rejected Reed's bid to get crime-scene DNA testing on the basis that he waited too long to assert his claims under the statute of limitations.

The issue is one that has divided the courts of appeal, with the Fifth Circuit in this case aligned with the Seventh Circuit in saying that the clock starts ticking when a state court denies a request for testing, regardless of whether that state decision is being appealed. In similar cases, however, the 11th Circuit has ruled that the statute of limitations begins after a state court denies an inmate's request for DNA testing and after appeals on that decision are settled.

“Had Mr. Reed brought his claims to the Eleventh Circuit, the court would have proceeded to the weighty question of whether the Constitution entitles him to testing that could prove his innocence,” the petition says.

Death row inmate Rodney Reed waves to his family in the Bastrop County District Court in Texas on Oct. 13, 2017. Supporters for Reed, who's facing lethal injection for a murder he says he didn't commit, are mounting a final push in the courts and on social media to stop his execution, which is being called into question by lawmakers, pastors, celebrities and the European Union. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File)

Reed argues that including the lengthy and time-consuming state appeals process in the calculation puts pressure inmates to turn to federal courts for resolution out of fear they will end up in the same position as Reed.

“The Fifth Circuit’s rule also undermines comity, federalism and judicial economy by inviting (if not requiring) prisoners to rush to federal court while state-court litigation is pending," the petition states.

Attorneys for the state did not return a request for comment, but the decadeslong case has drawn attention from members of Congress and celebrities, including Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian. In a previous turn at the Supreme Court, Reed failed in 2020 to secure review of some of the procedures in his case as well as his pending execution.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor had said at the time: “Reed has presented 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.” 

Per its custom, the Supreme Court did not issue any statement on the order today taking up Reed's case. The writ of certiorari is one of two in a list of orders released Monday morning. The other case involves Robert Mallory who attributes his battle with colon cancer to asbestos exposure during a nearly 20-year career with the Norfolk Southern Railway Co.

Mallory worked for the railroad company for nearly 20 years, alleging his colon cancer was caused by workplace exposure to asbestos and other carcinogens. Although Mallory is a resident of Virginia, where the company likewise does most of its business, he sued in Pennsylvania. He seeks a reversal from the justices in Washington after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found constitutional problems with the state’s consent-by-registration law, which allows a company to be sued in a state because they do business there.

The U.S. Supreme Court will now have to resolve whether the 14th Amendment precludes states from requiring corporations to agree to personal jurisdiction in a state in order to do business there.

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