As Rodney Reed fights death sentence in 1996 murder, man who defense claims is the real killer takes stand

Lawyers for Rodney Reed, a Black man who maintains he was wrongfully convicted in the 1996 murder of a White woman, called a man they claim is the victim’s real killer to testify during an evidence hearing on Thursday. 

Reed has spent decades on death row after he was sentenced to die in the murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas, but the state’s highest court issued a stay days before his scheduled execution in November of 2019. As his execution date loomed, the case gained national attention. Nearly 3 million people signed a petition urging clemency and high-profile figures such as Kim Kardashian West, Rihanna, Beyonce, Meek Mill and Oprah voiced support for Reed. 

The Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case back to the trial court to weigh whether Reed deserves a new trial.

Reed has said he was having an affair with Stites and had consensual sex with her the day before her death, but he has long denied killing her. 

In the Bastrop County court hearing that began Monday, lawyers for Reed have been introducing evidence and testimony in an attempt to implicate Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a White former police officer. Fennell, who later served time in prison for kidnapping a woman while on duty, on Thursday denied having anything to do with Stites’ murder.

“I know the truth is going to come out,” said Fennell, reports CBS Austin’s Bettie Cross. “I’m on the side of Stacey.”

At Reed’s 1998 trial, prosecutors claimed Stites spent an evening at home with Fennell before she left and drove to work, and during the drive, they said Reed intercepted her, raped and strangled her and left her body in a remote area. They cited Reed’s sperm found inside Stites’ body as evidence of Reed’s guilt. 

Reed’s defense team says the small amount of sperm found inside Stites’ body actually supports Reed’s claim that the two had consensual sex the day before she died. During the hearing this week, Reed’s defense called two forensic experts who testified that the state of Stites’ body indicated she was killed hours earlier than prosecutors claimed, at a time when she was at home with Fennell.

Grilled by Reed’s defense attorney Andrew MacRae about the testimony, Fennell said of the experts, “Both of them are lying.” 

Reed’s defense earlier in the week called witnesses who described a volatile relationship between Stites and Fennell. One witness said he saw Fennell “screaming” at Stites in the parking lot of the grocery store where she worked, Cross reports. Another witness, a former co-worker, said she saw fingerprint-like bruises on Stites’ wrists, “like someone grabbed her and pulled her.” Another co-worker reportedly said Fennell was “very jealous and very controlling, threatening,” and that Stites wasn’t sure she wanted to go through with their wedding, which was days away.

Other witnesses said they had seen Stites and Reed together at the grocery store. One former co-worker, Alicia Slater, testified Stites “said she was not excited to get married because [Stites was] sleeping with a Black man named Rodney,” Cross reports.

Reed’s defense also called a man who was once incarcerated with Fennell, who said Fennell had confessed to killing Stites. The man, Arthur Snow, said he had been involved in the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang and that Fennell asked him for protection. Snow claimed Fennell told him, “You wouldn’t believe how easily a belt would break when you strangle a n——loving whore.” The belt that was used to strangle Stites was found in two pieces.

Another man who was formerly jailed with Fennell, Michael Bordelon, testified that Fennell told him: “I took care of the problem. I took care of her and that damn n—– is going to do the time. The problem has been taken care of.”

Testifying Thursday, Fennell denied that Stites and Reed were having an affair, and said the testimony from the former inmates and Stites’ co-workers was untruthful.

When MacRae told Fennell, “A reasonable person could conclude that it was you who killed Miss Stites, not Rodney Reed,” Fennell replied, “No.”

“A reasonable person could conclude that it was you who killed Miss Stites, not Rodney Reed,” said Reed’s defense attorney Andrew MacRae. “No,” said Jimmy Fennell. “They’re just telling what they think they heard. They’re lies.”

An attorney for Fennell has questioned why the witnesses waited so long to come forward, and pointed to past assault allegations against Reed, including a 1987 rape in which he was acquitted. Thursday, Fennell said Stites “deserved to live a happy life” and that he felt responsible for her death because “I didn’t get up and take her to work.” 

“I was a police officer and I couldn’t even protect my own family,” he said.

When asked by prosecutors why he didn’t marry Stites, Fennell replied, “Because Rodney Reed murdered her,” evoking an audible response from Reed’s supporters in the courtroom.

Prosecutors have maintained that Reed murdered Stites and said there was no error in his original trial. In an opening statement for the prosecution Monday, Lisa Tanner, an assistant Texas attorney general, said there’s no proof of a “secret affair,” Cross reported. Tanner said Reed’s attorneys have had four different versions of what happened the night of Stites’ murder, and said prosecutors are defending Stites’ honor against their latest theory.

“Our evidence is not new and not anything we haven’t been saying for 25 years,” Tanner said.

A judge is not immediately expected to rule after the two-week hearing over whether Reed deserves a new trial. A final decision will ultimately be handed down by the appeals court.

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