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Mounting calls to halt execution of Texas death row inmate who maintains innocence

New evidence may save death row inmate
Could new evidence save Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed? 03:55

As his November 20 execution date looms, a growing chorus of supporters say a Texas death row inmate is innocent of murder and deserves clemency. Several new witnesses have also come forward in recent months in support of Rodney Reed, including a witness who submitted testimony last week that another man, the victim's fiancé, confessed to the crime.

Reed has garnered high-profile supporters including "Dr. Phil" McGraw and Kim Kardashian West, who tweeted at Texas Governor Greg Abbott to "do the right thing" and pardon Reed or commute his sentence. On Friday, the European Union urged clemency for Reed, saying evidence "casts substantial doubt as to his culpability" in the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites. And more than 130,000 have signed a petition urging officials to halt the execution.

Stacey Stites, left, and Rodney Reed, right CBS Austin

Here are the facts of the case: 

Reed, who is black, was found guilty in the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites, a white woman who was 19 years old at the time. 

Reed, now 51, was arrested after his sperm was found inside Stites' body. He pleaded not guilty, and in 1998, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by an all-white jury.

Reed initially said he didn't know Stites, but later said he was having an affair with her and that they had consensual sex the day before her death. But he has long maintained he did not kill her. 

Police had Reed's DNA available for testing from a separate sexual assault investigation, according to a 2018 prosecution motion asking to dismiss one of Reed's appeals. Reed had faced a series of sexual assault allegations, but was acquitted in the only case prosecuted, according to a request for a sentence commutation filed last week with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

At Reed's murder trial, prosecutors maintained Stites had spent an evening at home with her fiancé before leaving to drive herself to work in his truck around 3 a.m.

They said Reed intercepted her somewhere between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., raped and strangled her and left her body in a remote area in Bastrop.

Experts called by the prosecution said she'd been raped just before her murder, claiming sperm could not have survived from 24 hours earlier. But in the commutation request, Reed's defense attorneys argue the state relied on inaccurate science.

Jimmy Fennell CBS Austin

They cite forensic experts who say that the small amount of sperm found in Stites' body supported Reed's story that he had had consensual sex with Stites the day before her murder, and that sperm could survive up to 72 hours in the body after sex. The medical examiner whose trial testimony had bolstered the state's timeline later changed his account, according to the commutation request, saying there was no evidence to indicate the presence of Reed's sperm in Stites' body was the result of a sexual assault.

The defense experts cited in the commutation request also said the state of Stites' body indicated she was killed before midnight – when she would have been at home alone with her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell. In addition, the defense has offered several new witness accounts they say cast suspicion on Fennell, a white former police officer who would later serve 10 years in prison for kidnapping and having improper sexual contact with a woman he had taken into custody in 2007. Fennell was initially a suspect in Stites' murder, and had been interrogated and found to be deceptive on two lie-detector tests, according to the defense's commutation request.

Fennell denies any involvement in the slaying and was devastated by Stites' death, his lawyer Bob Phillips told CBS News.

But Reed's brother Rodrick Reed, speaking on the "Dr. Phil" show last month, said he believes race played a role in his conviction.

"I think right out of the gate, my brother didn't have a shot," Rodrick Reed said. "I think this case is a prime example of why we should abolish the death penalty. It is so corrupt, it is racist, it is basically all those things that have played a major role in my brother's case."

During the two-hour special that aired last month, McGraw conducted a jailhouse interview with Reed, who maintained his innocence. "I wasn't with her that night," Reed insisted. "I had absolutely nothing to do with her death."

The latest witness to speak in Reed's defense, an inmate who was incarcerated with Fennell at a Texas prison, recounted in an affidavit submitted to the parole board that Fennell confessed to killing Stites during a 2010 conversation in jail. The witness, Arthur Snow, was a leader in the Aryan Brotherhood, which is identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white supremacist prison gang. Snow, who was serving time for forgery, said Fennell had offered to pay the gang in exchange for protection.

According to Snow, Fennell was talking about his ex-fiancée  with "a lot of hatred and resentment" and said she had been "sleeping around with a black man behind his back."

‘They Have The Truth. They Know The Truth,’ Says Death Row Inmate Who Insists He's Innocent by Dr. Phil on YouTube

"By the way Jimmy spoke about his experience, I could tell that it deeply angered him," Snow claimed in the affidavit. "Toward the end of the conversation, Jimmy said confidently, 'I had to kill my n----r-loving fiancée.'" 

Snow said he didn't initially come forward for fears of being branded a snitch, but said he later "started to grow up" and dropped some of his prejudices, and Reed's case began to weigh on his conscience. 

Snow's affidavit was included in the request for sentence commutation filed this week before the state parole board. In an Oct. 4 motion to withdraw the execution date filed in Bastrop District Court, Reed's defense team said two new witnesses had also come forward recently with accounts that implicated Fennell.

One, an insurance salesperson, said she heard Fennell tell Stites in November 1995, "If I ever catch you messing around on me, I will kill you and no one will ever know it was me that killed you."

Another witness, a former Lee County Sheriff's deputy, said he was disturbed at Stites' funeral when Fennell looked at the woman's body and said something to the effect of, "You got what you deserved."

In a letter appealing to Abbott for an execution delay, Reed's defense team cites another witness, a former law enforcement colleague of Fennell's, who claimed Fennell said in 1996 that he "believed Stacey was f-----g a n-----r.'"

Speaking with CBS News, Phillips maintained his client's innocence, saying that Stites' mother lived next door to the couple and would have heard a disturbance if Fennell killed her and moved her body to his truck.

He dismissed the theory of Reed's defense team as "absurd" and said Stites' mother and sisters believe that Reed is the killer. The Austin-American Statesman reports Stites' sister declined to appear on the "Dr. Phil" show and instead said in a statement that "an elaborate story has been created trying to blame my sister's murder on her fiancé."

"I think it's about time people stopped trying to defend Rodney Reed and look at Rodney Reed for who he is," Stites' mother Carol Stites said after testifying in a 2017 Texas court hearing, according to CBS affiliate KEYE-TV.

Several members of the Stites family, including a cousin, support Reed, his defense team said in the commutation request.

Phillips said there is "absolutely not a scintilla of merit" in Snow's account.

"This is coming from a career criminal who has pending cases in Hays County," Phillips said. "It's classic Hail Mary stuff from a guy who's trying to save his own scalp, I'm quite confident."

He also dismissed the claims of the other new witnesses, questioning why they had waited so long to come forward. 

What Happened to Stacey? What The Evidence Shows by Dr. Phil on YouTube

"If these are credible people, where have they been?" Phillips said. "Why have they left this man to suffer on death row for a crime they say they know he didn't commit? It's laughable."

Phillips discounted the claims of witnesses who said they can back up Reed's claim he was having an affair with Stites, calling that "absolutely untrue."

"Where are the love notes? Where are the photographs?" Phillips asked. "Where is one piece of corroborating evidence other than people coming out of the woodwork 20 years after the fact?"

In the commutation request, Reed's lawyers asked the state parole board to recommend Abbott commute Reed's sentence from death to life in prison. His defense attorneys said Reed is not asking for a pardon "because he wishes to have his conviction overturned in court and to be vindicated at a fair trial in which a jury of his peers considers all of the evidence he now presents to this Board."

"Especially in light of the new evidence that has continued to emerge, a commutation to a life sentence is necessary to ensure that Mr. Reed is not executed in error," his attorneys said.

The Texas Attorney General's office, which handled the case on appeal, and the Abbott's office did not respond to requests for comment.

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