The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a ruling late Friday staying the execution of Rodney Reed — just days before he was to receive a lethal injection.
It was an extraordinary moment for a man who has become a cause celebre — activists, celebrities, and a bi-partisan collection of lawmakers rallying around the 51-year-old Texan amid mounting evidence that he did not commit the murder for which he was convicted.
Now, the courts have a chance to right what looks like a grievous wrong.
“We are extremely relieved and thankful that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) has issued a stay of execution for our client Rodney Reed,” his attorney, Bryce Benjet, said in a statement to the Washington Post, adding that the ruling “will allow for proper consideration of the powerful and mounting new evidence of Mr. Reed’s innocence.”
Reed was convicted in 1998 of the rape and murder of Stacey Stites.
The only piece of evidence ever tying him to the crime were sperm cells found in Stites’s body that matched his DNA. Reed claimed that he and Stites were having a consensual affair — and he has maintained that the two had sexual relations days before her body was found. Since his conviction, Stites’s cousin and a co-worker have confirmed that the two were romantically involved.
Prosecutors argued to the jury that the DNA could only have been left hours before Stites’s death. In the years since, though, this theory has largely been debunked. Even the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy undergirding the theory has backed away from his initial conclusions.
Three forensic experts who testified at Reed’s trial have also admitted to errors in their testimony, including their initial judgments on Stites’s time of death. Based on their revised judgments it would have been far more difficult, if not impossible, for Reed to have committed the crime.
The case for Reed’s innocence is further bolstered by the fact that there is a more plausible suspect — Stites’s live-in boyfriend at the time, Jimmy Fennell.
Fennell, a former cop who spent 10 years in jail for kidnapping and rape, had initially been considered the prime suspect in the case.
Fingerprints found on Stites’s truck were only from her and Fennell — and not from Reed. And according to a statement from his best friend at the time, Fennell has given inconsistent accounts of where he was the night of the murder.
A former sheriff’s deputy claims in a sworn affidavit that he recalled hearing Fennell, while standing over Stites’s casket before her funeral, say “You got what you deserved.” Another fellow officer recalled hearing Fennell tell friends before Stites’s death that he believed Stites was sleeping with a Black man. Fennell used a racial epithet, he said, when he voiced his disgust. A fellow convict also signed an affidavit claiming that Fennell told him he “had to kill” his fiance — again using a racial epithet when he described her affair.
Reed, who is black, was convicted and sentenced to die by an all-white jury. Stites was also white.
Perhaps the most telling sign of doubt about the case is the bipartisan calls in Texas for a reprieve. Earlier this month, a group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Governor Greg Abbott asking him to stop Reed’s execution. And on Friday afternoon, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended that the governor delay Reed’s execution by 120 days. The subsequent ruling by the court of criminal appeals effectively preempted the governor’s involvement.
More than a dozen former law enforcement officers have publicly called Reed’s potential execution “cruel and immoral,” and one said that it would “undermine the rule of law.” Even Texas Senator Ted Cruz has called for a further examination of the evidence.
What is perhaps most disturbing about this case is that, until now, the state of Texas has repeatedly resisted calls to perform genetic testing on a belt that was the alleged murder weapon — a position that has been upheld by state and federal courts.
It’s an element of death penalty cases that never ceases to amaze — the stubborn refusal of many prosecutors and politicians to consider new evidence, even in cases where the question of guilt or innocence is in genuine doubt.
Even for those who support the death penalty, it should go without saying that no cause of justice is served by executing an innocent man.
When that possibility exists, why would any public official sworn to uphold the law resist the most exhaustive possible search for the truth? It’s an especially charged question in Texas, where there is strong evidence that authorities executed at least one innocent man — Cameron Willingham — who was put to death in 2004 for the arson deaths of his three children.
Now, it seems, the court of criminal appeals has forced a reckoning that was long overdue. Let’s hope Reed — and Stites — finally get the justice they are due.
This column was updated Friday evening to reflect news of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.