HOUSTON (AP) — A judge recommended no new trial for Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed, whose supporters point to evidence they say raises serious doubts about his guilt.
Reed was condemned for the 1996 killing of 19-year-old Stacey Stites. Prosecutors say Reed raped and strangled Stites as she made her way to work at a supermarket in Bastrop, a rural community about 30 miles (50 kilometers) southeast of Austin.
Reed, 53, has long maintained that her fiance, former police officer Jimmy Fennell, was the real killer. Reed says Fennell was angry because Stites, who was white, was having an affair with Reed, who is black. Fennell, who served time for sexual assault and was released from prison in 2018, has denied killing Stites.
State District Judge J.D. Langley was appointed to review the case after the Texas Court of Criminal appeals put his November 2019 execution on hold.
In a 50-page ruling, Langley wrote that the three claims Reed is making — prosecutors suppressed evidence, Fennell falsely testified he didn’t kill Stites and Reed is actually innocent — should be denied.
Reed “has not proven by clear and convincing evidence that he is actually innocent,” Langley wrote in his ruling, issued Sunday.
Langley’s findings come after a two-week evidentiary hearing in July in which witnesses and experts testified on behalf of Reed, whose supporters include lawmakers and celebrities. Some witnesses testified that Reed and Stites had a consensual affair and that they had seen the two together. Several forensic experts testified Stites died hours earlier than the timeline presented by prosecutors.
Prosecutors say his claims of an affair with Stites were not proven at trial, Fennell was cleared as a suspect and Reed had a history of committing other sexual assaults.
Langley’s recommendation now goes to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which will make the final decision on whether Reed gets a new trial. It was not immediately known when the appeals court would rule.
“If a new jury heard the overwhelming evidence of Rodney Reed’s innocence, it would have reasonable doubts," Jane Pucher, an attorney with the Innocence Project, which is representing Reed, said. "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 the case on behalf of the state at the July hearing, didn't immediately return an email seeking comment Monday.
In his ruling, Langley was critical of the 17 witnesses who testified on behalf of Reed at that hearing that they either saw Reed and Stites interact with each other or that they saw Fennell act suspiciously after Stites’ death, saying that many had “waited decades to bring forth” their recollections.
Langley also sided with prosecution experts who supported claims from Reed’s trial that Stites died within a two-hour window, which would not have made it possible for Fennell to have committed the killing. Defense experts in July suggested Stites could have died during times that Fennell testified he was with her.
Reed’s attorneys have also argued that sperm from Reed that was found on Stites’ body was not proof of sexual assault as prosecutors had argued at trial but was from consensual sex between the two a day earlier. In his ruling, Langley said he gave more credibility to prosecution experts from July’s hearing who supported the conclusion that Stites could have been sexually assaulted.
Langley also said he found Fennell, who testified at the July hearing, to be a “credible” witness. Fennell denied killing Stites and said he never yelled at her or referred to her in any derogatory way.
Reed’s efforts to stop his execution in 2019 received support from such celebrities as Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey. Lawmakers from both parties also asked that officials take another look at the case.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70