Updated Friday, June 22, 4:54 pm
At first glance, Texas’s capital case against Rodney Reed looks fairly persuasive.
Nineteen-year-old Stacey Stites was found dead in a wooded area just off a county road in Bastrop, Texas, in 1996. She was half-naked, with Reed’s DNA inside her. The DNA was the “Cinderella’s slipper,” special prosecutor Lisa Tanner told the jury at trial: it matched Reed’s; therefore, Reed was the murderer.
But what if it weren’t that simple?
It has been fourteen years since Reed was convicted and sentenced to die for Stites’s murder. Since then, evidence has accumulated that calls into question the state’s case against him—evidence that includes ineffective lawyering, possible prosecutorial misconduct, junk science and racial bias. Perhaps most damning, it also includes a failure by police to fully investigate a man with a troubling history of violence against women: Jimmy Fennell, Stites’s fiancé, a former police officer who is currently serving prison time for kidnapping and sexual assault.
Reed, who is black, has maintained his innocence and said that the DNA can be explained because he was having a sexual affair with Stites, who was white. In small-town Texas such an illicit, interracial relationship remains an explosive revelation—one that Reed’s supporters say infuriated Fennell, who is white, giving him a strong motive to harm his young bride-to-be.
Did Fennell kill Stacy Stites? And can Reed prove it? A federal district judge in Austin is in the process of deciding whether new evidence pointing to this scenario means Reed should get a new day in court. In the meantime, Reed remains on death row, the possibility of an execution date looming overhead.
Stites disappeared in the early morning hours of April 23, 1996. At the time she was living in an apartment with Fennell in the small town of Giddings, where he worked as a cop. According to Fennell, she left their home in his red Chevy pickup, heading to work for a 3:30 am shift at a grocery store in Bastrop, roughly thirty miles away. The same truck was found later that morning, parked at nearby Bastrop High School. Just before 3 pm, a passerby picking flowers on the side of the road discovered Stites’s body. She was dead, left in a ditch off the side of the road, half-dressed in her work uniform—her name tag wedged between her legs in a macabre greeting—and with a ligature mark embedded in her neck.
It was nearly a year later that DNA taken from a vaginal swab was matched to 29-year-old Reed, a Bastrop resident with a history of being in trouble with the law—notably, for having been accused of rape. He was arrested and charged with capital murder. According to the state’s theory of the crime, Reed, on foot, encountered Stites as she was driving to work. He somehow got her to stop the truck, attacked her, took the wheel, then raped and killed her—strangling her with her webbed belt. He then dumped her body, abandoning the truck just blocks from where he lived with his parents and depositing a piece of the belt on the ground by the driver-side door.
But aside from Reed’s semen, no other physical evidence linked him to the crime—or to the scenario the state devised. There were no fingerprints found in the truck or on the belt; no hairs or other biological traces found on Stites were connected to Reed—and there were no witnesses who saw the two together that morning. The DNA was all the state had. And Reed had an explanation for that: he was having an affair with Stites, whom he’d met at a local pool hall in 1995. The DNA was not from that morning, he maintains, but from a sexual encounter he had with Stites more than twenty-four hours before her death.