The fate of death row inmate Rodney Reed rests in Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s hands.
The Texas parole board voted unanimously Friday to recommend that Abbott halt the Wednesday execution of Reed amid mounting pressure from state and federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, A-list celebrities, and millions of people who signed online petitions.
The board’s recommendation of a 120-day reprieve goes to Abbott, who can either accept or reject it. Abbott has stopped one execution since taking office in 2015, also at the unanimous urging of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. But that case was about mercy and granting the wishes of the only surviving victim. Reed’s case centers on doubts about his guilt in the murder that landed him on death row more than two decades ago.
Reed, now 51, was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1996 murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop. For more than two decades, Reed has maintained his innocence. His lawyers have consistently pointed to new evidence — presenting new witnesses even this week — that they say instead puts suspicion on Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell.
Both Reed and Fennell have been accused of multiple sexual assaults. Reed was indicted, but never convicted, in several other rape cases months before his trial in Stites’ death began in 1998. Fennell spent 10 years in prison after he kidnapped and allegedly raped a woman while on duty as a police officer in 2007.
Stites’ body was found partially unclothed in Bastrop County hours after she didn’t show up to her grocery store job, according to court records. Fennell’s truck was found abandoned in a nearby school parking lot. Pieces of Stites’ belt, which is believed to have been used to strangle her, were found at both locations.
Stites was originally a suspect, but the prosecution turned to Reed about a year later when they found sperm cells that matched him inside her body. Reed said he and Stites had a consensual, casual relationship. His attorneys recently brought forward witnesses like Stites’ cousin and coworkers to corroborate that claim, but Bastrop County prosecutors and Stites’ family strongly deny it. Reed’s lawyers argued his case highlights long-standing prejudices doubting that Reed, a black man, would be romantically involved with Stites, a white woman. He was convicted by an all-white jury.
Reed currently has appeals pending at multiple levels, from the trial court to the U.S. Supreme Court. In his appeals, he has repeatedly asked for, and been denied, DNA testing on the belt thought to have been used to strangle Stites. He also noted that forensic evidence has been reexamined, with the medical examiner now saying Reed’s sperm could have been in Stites from consensual sex, and has presented more witnesses, including a man who claims Fennell confessed to Stites’ murder to him while in prison.
In recent months, more and more people have called for a stop to Reed’s scheduled execution. Dozens of Texas House members and more than half of the state Senate — including Democrats and Republicans — signed onto letters to Abbott and the parole board asking for more time to review new evidence. Calls to stop Reed’s execution also came from numerous Democratic presidential candidates and A-list celebrities on daytime TV shows and the red carpet.