The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals ordered a stay of execution Friday for Rodney Reed, just five days before he was slated for lethal injection in the 1996 killing of Stacey Stites.
The ruling sends the case back to trial court to look into Reed’s claims of evidence suppression and false testimony in the original trial. His attorneys presented new witnesses this week pointing to Stites’ fiance, Jimmy Fennell, as the killer.
Reed, 51, has been on death row for 21 years convicted of raping and strangling Stites, 19. Her partially nude body was found in Bastrop County, and Fennell’s truck, which she was driving, was found nearby in a school parking lot.
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Fennell, then a police officer, was initially a suspect, but detectives turned to Reed when DNA tests revealed that cells from his semen were inside the victim. Reed said that he and Stites had a consensual affair and that he denied knowing Stites at first because he feared Fennell would make it impossible to have a fair trial.
Stites’ family vehemently denied that she and Reed had an affair and maintains she and Fennell had a very loving relationship. In an exclusive interview with CrimeOnline, Stites’ sister, Crystal Hefley said that Stites never mentioned Reed and was looking forward to her wedding with Fennell.
“We were looking forward to a beautiful wedding,” Hefley said. “We buried her in her wedding dress. Jimmy on his own went up and put the ring on her finger. Jimmy will always be our brother in law. … He [Reed] did not know my sister personally. We have zero doubt that Rodney Reed crossed paths with our sister that morning of April 23, 1996.”
Other members of Stites’ family, however, as well as co-workers are among the new witnesses brought forward by Reed’s attorneys. They say that Reed and Stites did have an affair and that Fennell was violent and abusive toward her. Another witness — an inmate with Fennell when he was imprisoned for kidnapping and raping another woman while on duty as a police officer — said the former cop bragged about killing Stites. Fennell has denied killing Stites and was released from prison on parole last year.
Fennell was also accused of telling a co-worker that if he ever caught Stacey cheating on him, he would “strangle her with a belt to avoid leaving fingerprints around her neck,” according to The Intercept.
Reed has multiple appeals at various stages throughout the court system. Earlier on Friday, the Texas Board of Pardons recommended that Gov Greg Abbott delay the sentence for 120 days.
Celebrities such as Beyonce and Oprah Winfrey and dozens of Republican and Democratic lawmakers — including Republican Congressman Michael McCaul, who represents Bastrop, and US Sen Ted Cruz — had called for a stay of Reed’s execution to take a closer look at the evidence. Martin Luther King III, son of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr, sent a letter to Gov Greg Abbott on Friday asking him to postpone the execution.
My letter to Texas Governor @GregAbbott_TX asking him to stop the execution of Rodney Reed, schedule for November 20th. #RodneyReed pic.twitter.com/KvhMvoHkbn
— Martin Luther King III (@OfficialMLK3) November 15, 2019
Online petitions and rallies have also pushed for a review of Reed’s case.
Bryce Benjet, Reed’s attorney with the Innocence Project, said the team working with him was “extremely relieved and thankful” for the stay.
“This opportunity will allow for proper consideration of the powerful and mounting new evidence of Mr. Reed’s innocence,” he said.
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[Feature Photo: Stacey Stites/Handout]