As Rodney Reed’s Execution Nears, Is Texas Close To Killing An Innocent Man?

Advocates point to a lack of investigation into the murder weapon and another suspect.

By Wells Dunbar & Alexandra HartOctober 24, 2019 2:31 pm

In the 1990s, DNA evidence put a Bastrop man on death row for murdering a police officer’s fiancée. 23 years later, Rodney Reed’s execution date is set for November, as information supporting his innocence accumulates. 

Reed’s lawyers failed to make the case that Reed, an African American man, had a consensual affair with Stacey Stites, a white woman. The judge sentenced Reed, based on DNA found in Stiles body. Now, many advocates are scrutinizing the court’s failure to investigate various pieces of evidence, and suspects including Stiles’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell who is also white. After the trial, Stiles’ coworkers confirmed the affair that Reed’s defense was unable to prove.

Jordan Smith has followed Reed’s case as an investigative crime reporter for the Intercept. She says the court made its decision based primarily on DNA evidence.

“They argued that it was the ‘Cinderella slipper’ of the case that you really need look no further than that,” Smith says. 

But other evidence, including the belt believed to have strangled Stites, was never tested. 

“It has long been argued that the perpetrator’s DNA would be on this piece of belt,” Smith says. “Yet the state has sort of stood in the way – and judges well – not allowing that and some other things to be tested.”

The belt was not the only element of the case that wasn’t investigated. The prosecution seemed to ignore Fennel as a suspect. For example, police didn’t search the apartment where Stiles and Fennel lived -– the last place Stiles was alive. 

“They never really investigated him,” Smith says. “Fennell was questioned about this repeatedly, he failed two polygraph exams both on the question whether he had killed her.”

After Reed’s trial, further evidence put Fennell in the spotlight. Fellow police officers say Fennell made several comments that caused them to question his character and his knowledge of his Stiles’ affair. 

“[They say] he had some very disturbing behaviors after her murder,” Smith says, “including standing at the funeral home and looking at her body and making sort of menacing comments like ‘you got what you deserved.’”

Another officer said Fennell told him about Stiles’ relationship with a black person’ Smith says. Smith also notes the narrative the prosecution promoted to Reed’s all-white jury in a rural Texas town. 

“This idea of race played in several ways,” Smith says “one which I think is particularly shameful on the state’s part was to revive a very old stereotype [of] the black man as predator on white women and that really was a theme throughout.”

Reed’s execution date is set for November 20. Criminal justice advocacy groups, including the Innocence Project, are working to reverse the death sentence, through civil rights appeals, and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Gov. Greg Abbott could also delay Reed’s execution, to give advocates more time to prove his innocence. 

“Recently… they just filed a petition with Gov. Abbott to see if he would do the reprieve that he can do by Texas law,” Smith says, “to  give this a little bit more breathing room before we launch forward into something we can’t take back.” 


Written by Libby Cohen.