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After 20-plus years on death row, Rodney Reed’s conviction should stand, judge says

Reed has spent more than 20 years on death row after being convicted in 1998 for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites.

BASTROP COUNTY, Texas — A judge has issued a recommendation that Rodney Reed's conviction in the death of Stacey Stites should stand, according to Reed's attorney.

In 1998, Reed was convicted in the 1996 kidnap, rape and murder of Stites. He has spent more than 20 years on death row and has maintained his innocence.

Reed was granted an evidentiary hearing, which took place over nine days in late July. During that time, the defense argued for a new trial because they said no reasonable jury could convict Reed based on new evidence, which included witness testimony stating Reed was having a secret affair with Stites; that Stites was in an abusive relationship with her then-fiancé, Jimmy Fennell; and that Fennell was the real killer.

But state attorneys said witnesses came forward more than 20 years later. The State questioned the witnesses' memory and concluded they were not credible. The state also said forensic evidence linked Reed to Stites.

Judge J.D. Langley had three options for his recommendation. He could recommend a new trial, let Reed's conviction stand or let Reed go free. Now that he has recommended that Reed's conviction stand, the case moves to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to decide what happens next. There is no timetable for that decision.

Jane Pucher, Reed’s attorney and a senior staff attorney at The Innocence Project, released the following statement on Nov. 1 in response to Langley's recommendation:

“We look forward to presenting Mr. Reed’s case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. If a new jury heard the overwhelming evidence of Rodney Reed’s innocence, it would have reasonable doubts. Convicted by an all-white jury, Mr. Reed has spent 23 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Many highly credible witnesses testified at the evidentiary hearing that Mr. Reed and Stacey Stites knew each other and were intimately involved. Many credible witnesses also testified that Ms. Stites’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, was violent and controlling and had threatened to hurt her if he discovered she was unfaithful. Nationally recognized experts have completely debunked the forensic case against Mr. Reed and even the State’s pathology expert has agreed that central points at trial were false. We hope the Court of Criminal Appeals recognizes that he should be given a new trial.”

Stites' family released the following statement on Nov. 1:

"I am very pleased with Judge Langley’s recommendation to uphold the jury’s verdict. Rodney Reed is guilty of the murder of my sister, Stacey Stites.

"My family has been tortured and retraumatized by this nightmare for 25 years and it is time for justice to prevail and for the defendant to accept responsibility for the murder of my sister.

"Stacey was a daughter, a sister and a friend and her memory has been lost in the unnecessary circus that has been created around this very open and shut case.

"Reed’s story is only believable if you ignore the overwhelming evidence that he is a serial rapist and the complete lack of evidence that he ever had a relationship with Stacey.

"In 25 years, no tangible evidence of a relationship between Stacey and the defendant has ever materialized. That is because no relationship ever existed. There are no photos, no gifts, no phone records, no receipts and no corroboration by those that knew Stacey best.

"I want to thank the state’s attorneys for their commitment to seeking justice for Stacey and I want to thank the many people from around the world that have supported my family.

"This judgement does not bring Stacey back. The defendant robbed us of all of the memories we would have made with Stacey the past 25 years. He will never be able to do this to another family and he will never be able to victimize another woman."

Below is a breakdown of some of the information from a "Findings & Facts" document sent to KVUE by the Bastrop County deputy district clerk following Langley's recommendation.

Breakdown of 'Findings & Facts' document

According to the “Findings & Facts” document, the conviction challenge presently raised by Reed came from his 10th state habeas application, filed in November 2019. In that application, Reed raised four grounds for relief:

  • Ground One: The State suppressed favorable, material evidence known to Richard Derleth, Wayne Fletcher and Jim Clampit.
  • Ground Two: Fennell testified falsely when he denied murdering Stites, denied knowing Reed and said his relationship with Stites was good.
  • Ground Three: Reed’s trial attorneys were ineffective for failing to adequately investigate Stites' time of death, the length of time sperm remains morphologically intact and evidence of a prior consensual relationship between Applicant and Stites.
  • Ground Four: Reed is actually innocent of capital murder.

Ground One

For Ground One, Reed claimed that:

  • Richard Derleth, a then-Bastrop County deputy sheriff, was supposedly told by unnamed and unknown H-E-B employees that Stites and Fennell fought.
  • Charles Wayne Fletcher, also a then-Bastrop County deputy sheriff, claims to have observed relationship difficulties between Stites and Fennell, heard Fennell say he believed Stites was unfaithful and having an affair with a Black man and observed odd behavior by Fennell at Stites' funeral and burial services.
  • Jim Clampit, a then-Lee County deputy sheriff, asserts that he overheard Fennell say at Stites' funeral that she got what she deserved.

In the “Findings & Facts” document, the Court states that it determined Derleth is not credible because he did not testify at the evidentiary hearing, he waited decades to bring forth his “recollection” and he did not ensure that investigators on Stites’ case or those handling it postconviction knew of his recollection. The Court determined there is no evidence that Derleth was part of the investigation into Stites’ murder nor that he told anyone involved in the investigation.

The document states that the Court also similarly determined Fletcher is not credible because he waited decades to bring forth his recollection and he didn’t ensure investigators knew of it, among other reasons. Fletcher’s recollection also conflicts with the recollection of his wife, Etta Wiley, and of Fennell, both of whom the Court finds more credible than Fletcher. The Court does not believe Fletcher’s recollection that Fennell and Stites were fighting or that Fennell told Fletcher about his suspicion that Stites was having an affair, and the Court puts little stock in Fletcher’s recollection that Fennell was behaving oddly.

Finally, the Court determined Clampit is not credible again because, among other things, he waited to bring forth his recollection. Additionally, Clampit has improperly testified in the past and he has admitted that his memory “is not as clear as it should be.”

The Court also stated in the document it finds credible the expert testimony of Dr. Deborah Davis that memory deteriorates over time and can be influenced and distorted by pre-event bias and post-event information exposure.

Ground Two

For Ground Two, Reed claimed the State unknowingly presented false testimony at trial when Fennell testified that he didn’t kill Stites. Reed also claims that Fennell lied about not knowing him and that Fennell offered false testimony when he said his relationship with Stites was "good."

The Court stated in the “Findings & Facts" document that, in general, it finds Fennell’s testimony credible and gives it full and proper weight. The Court also credits the testimonies of state witnesses Crystal Dohrmann, Thelma Fennell, Mark Brown and Debra Oliver that, among other things, support the testimony from the trial that Fennell and Stites had a good relationship.

The Court also stated that it found the testimonies of a number of defense witnesses either unreliable or not credible.

Ground Four

For Ground Four, Reed alleged he is actually innocent, using some of the evidence in previous state habeas applications combined with the evidence presented for the first time in this evidentiary hearing.

The Court stated in the “Findings & Facts” document that Reed has suggested multiple alternative suspects and multiple alternative co-conspirators assisting Fennell with Stites’ murder. The Court stated that Reed has also been inconsistent in how he has treated some of the alternative co-conspirators and that his current theory concerning Stites’ time of death is inconsistent with previous theories he has presented. The Court stated that these inconsistencies diminish the credibility of Reed’s actual innocence theory.

The Court also questioned Reed’s credibility, as well as the credibility of supposed testimony recantations by Dr. Roberto Bayardo, Karen Blakely and Meghan Clement and the supposed confessions of Arthur Snow and Michael Bordelon. The Court also took note of forensic evidence, as well as Reed’s extraneous offenses.

In conclusion, the Court stated that Reed has not proven by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted him of capital murder, nor that he is actually innocent.

Read the "Findings & Facts" document in full here.

What's next for Reed? 

Judge Langley's recommendation that Reed's conviction stand is sent to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to decide what happens next. This is the highest criminal court in Texas, which makes the ultimate decision to grant or deny relief in Reed's case. 

While there is no timetable for that decision, Carmen Roe, a legal expert and defense attorney, explained that given the significance of the case, she expects it could take up to a year.

While the Criminal Court of Appeals typically upholds recommendations from lower courts, Roe explained this is not guaranteed in Reed's case. Two things could cause them to reject the Judge Langley's findings.

"One is because the findings are not supported by the record, or two, if those findings do not completely resolve or address every single issue. In either of those scenarios, the Court of Criminal Appeals could resolve it on their own, or they could send it back to the trial court for further findings, including another evidentiary hearing," Roe explained.

If the Court of Criminal Appeals upholds the recommendation, this means Reed's writ of habeas corpus was denied and he would get a new execution date, according to Roe. That does not mean his fight is over. 

While 10 writ of habeas corpus is almost unheard of, Roe said under the circumstances of this case, if new evidence or witnesses come forward significant to the outcome, she believes his case could go back up the Court of Criminal Appeals for review once again. 

"I think this case has had a long road and a significant history. But like any death penalty case, we want to make sure that we get it right, not that we get it done fast," Roe said.

KVUE has covered the developments in Reed's case extensively for years. In 2020, KVUE won a Lone Star Emmy Award for our in-depth look at the case, "Without A Doubt: The State vs. Rodney Reed." You can watch that report below:

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