A judge in Texas has recommended that Rodney Reed, a death row prisoner whose case has drawn the attention of celebrities and elected officials, should not receive a new trial in the 1996 murder of a 19-year-old woman.
Judge J.D. Langley, who filed his recommendation on Sunday in District Court in Bastrop County, said that Mr. Reed “has not proven by clear and convincing evidence that he is actually innocent.”
Judge Langley’s recommendation sends the case back to the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which will decide if Mr. Reed will get a new trial. His lawyers said they were hopeful the court would grant one, though it was not clear when that would be decided.
Mr. Reed, 53, who has long claimed his innocence, was convicted in 1998 in the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas. Ms. Stites, 19, was strangled, and her body was dumped alongside a rural road. Prosecutors said she had also been raped, and Mr. Reed was arrested based mostly on DNA tests.
Mr. Reed has said that he and Ms. Stites were having an affair, which would explain why his DNA was recovered from her body. Mr. Reed’s lawyers say witnesses have corroborated that the two were having an affair.
His lawyers said that new evidence had surfaced in recent years, including testimony from witnesses who had come forward pointing toward the victim’s fiancé as another suspect.
One of Mr. Reed’s lawyers, Jane Pucher of the Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate people who might have been wrongly convicted, said in an interview on Monday that her team had presented “numerous witnesses who had absolutely no motive to lie or misremember or exaggerate anything in Rodney’s favor.”
“If a new jury heard the overwhelming evidence of Rodney Reed’s innocence, it would have reasonable doubts,” Ms. Pucher said in a statement. “Convicted by an all-white jury, Mr. Reed has spent 23 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.”
The Texas attorney general’s office, which argued that Mr. Reed should not receive a new trial, did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment on Monday.
The case has captured the attention of celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West. Several Democratic and Republican elected officials have asked the state to intervene and call off the execution.
Mr. Reed, who is one of 197 inmates on Texas’ death row, has tried and failed several times to get his conviction overturned, court records show. His execution has been stayed twice, most recently in November 2019, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals suspended his death sentence and ordered the court where he was originally tried to consider the new evidence in his case.
Ms. Pucher said witnesses have testified that “Ms. Stites’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, was violent and controlling and had threatened to hurt her if he discovered she was unfaithful.” Mr. Fennell, a former police officer, pleaded guilty in 2008 to kidnapping a woman. The woman said he also sexually assaulted her, according to the Innocence Project.
Arthur J. Snow Jr., who served time in prison with Mr. Fennell, said in a sworn affidavit in 2019 that he heard Mr. Fennell confess that he killed Ms. Stites because she had cheated on him with a Black man. Mr. Reed is Black.
Mr. Fennell was released from prison in 2018. His lawyer, Robert M. Phillips, has said that Mr. Fennell denies killing Ms. Stites. Mr. Fennell could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Judge Langley wrote in his 50-page recommendation that he found Mr. Fennell’s testimony that he and Ms. Stites “were happy together” to be credible.
The Innocence Project said that Mr. Fennell was not credible when he testified that the more than 20 witnesses who had implicated him in Ms. Stites’s murder were “lying.”
“Mr. Fennell was an early suspect in the case, his statements to police were misleading and he was found to be deceptive on two polygraph tests,” the Innocence Project said in a statement.
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