The case of a man who is set to be put to death in Texas later this month has drawn high-profile attention from celebrities, after several people came forward with new testimony throwing his conviction into doubt.
Rodney Reed, 51, is scheduled for execution on Nov. 20 for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Tex. In recent weeks, celebrities including Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West and Meek Mill have called on Gov. Greg Abbott to intervene. Texas executes far more people than any other state, including seven so far this year.
Ms. Stites, who was 19, was strangled, and her body was dumped alongside a rural road. Prosecutors said she had also been raped, and Mr. Reed was arrested based mostly on DNA tests. He said he and Ms. Stites had been having an affair in secret, which would explain his DNA being recovered from her body. His lawyers say witnesses have since corroborated the existence of the affair.
Here’s what else you need to know about the case.
What’s the new evidence?
Mr. Reed’s lawyers have argued previously that the state’s forensic investigators made critical errors regarding the timeline of the killing, which some investigators later admitted in affidavits. The lawyers have also pushed for the murder weapon — Ms. Stites’ belt — to be tested for DNA evidence, which has yet to happen.
The lawyers work for the Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate people who might have been wrongly convicted. Along with their forensic argument, they have objected to a Texas judge scheduling Mr. Reed’s execution before his federal appeals had been exhausted.
Most recently, at least three people have come forward with new testimony regarding Ms. Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell. Mr. Fennell is a former police officer who was released from prison in 2018; he pleaded guilty in 2008 to kidnapping a woman he had encountered while on duty. The woman said he had also raped her.
Arthur J. Snow Jr., who served time in prison with Mr. Fennell, said last month in a sworn affidavit that he heard Mr. Fennell confess to the murder of Ms. Stites. Mr. Snow, a former member of a white-only prison gang called the Aryan Brotherhood, said Mr. Fennell, who is white, had bragged about killing his fiancée because she had cheated on him with a black man. Mr. Reed is black.
Mr. Snow said he believed that Mr. Fennell had bragged about killing Ms. Stites to try to impress him and other members of the Aryan Brotherhood, whom Mr. Fennell had sought out for protection. Mr. Snow said he came forward after reading about the Reed case in a newspaper.
Other witnesses have also described statements by Mr. Fennell that the Innocence Project lawyers say warrant further investigation. A former insurance sales representative said he had heard Mr. Fennell say he would kill Ms. Stites if he caught her “messing around.” Charles W. Fletcher, a former friend of the couple, said Mr. Fennell had complained that Ms. Stites was cheating on him. And Jim Clampit, a former sheriff’s deputy, said that at Ms. Stites’ funeral, Mr. Fennell looked at her body and said, “You got what you deserved.”
Mr. Fennell’s lawyer, Robert M. Phillips, said that Mr. Fennell denies killing Ms. Stites, and that the Innocence Project was merely recycling claims that were made at trial. It was inconceivable, he said, that the people now coming forward would have stayed silent for so long if their accounts were true.
Mr. Phillips said Mr. Fennell had converted to Christianity, had found a job and a girlfriend, and was “living a law-abiding life.” He said he did not know whether Mr. Fennell supports the death penalty for Mr. Reed.
Could the governor stop the execution?
Mr. Reed’s lawyers and his supporters have pleaded with Governor Abbott to delay the execution by 30 days and to order the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to investigate the possibility of commuting Mr. Reed’s sentence.
Mr. Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. The governor has stopped just one execution in nearly five years in office, while allowing 47 to go forward, according to The Texas Tribune.
The one case came in February 2018, when the governor granted clemency to Thomas Whitaker, who had been sentenced to death for killing his brother and mother. Mr. Whitaker’s father, a survivor of the murders, had asked the governor to spare his son’s life, and Mr. Whitaker had agreed to waive his right to seek parole, meaning he would spend the rest of his life in prison.
Mr. Abbott commuted Mr. Whitaker’s sentence after a unanimous recommendation from the state parole board, the same panel that Mr. Reed’s lawyers want to investigate his sentence. Bryce Benjet, one of Mr. Reed’s lawyers, said the Whitaker case gave him and his client hope.
“Anybody will tell you that the death penalty is a very serious matter in Texas,” Mr. Benjet said. “But I think the Whitaker case does show that where there is compelling evidence, people are willing to take action.”
Which celebrities are getting involved?
Ms. Kardashian West, who has lobbied President Trump on criminal justice issues and persuaded him to release a woman serving life in prison, has urged Mr. Abbott to keep the state from killing Mr. Reed.
“How can you execute a man when, since his trial, substantial evidence that would exonerate Rodney Reed has come forward and even implicates the other person of interest,” Ms. Kardashian West wrote on Twitter.
Dr. Phil McGraw, the television host, has been posting frequently about the case online. On his show, he said that Mr. Reed had not been able to present all of the evidence in the case to the courts.
“I don’t think it’s a question of whether he’s guilty or not guilty,” Mr. McGraw said, according to The Austin American-Statesman. “I think the question is whether he had a full trial, with a full airing of all the evidence. I think the answer to that question, in my opinion, is not just no, but hell, no.”
Other celebrities who have drawn attention to Mr. Reed’s case include Pusha T, the rapper; Eric Andre, the comedian; and Cyntoia Brown, who was released from prison this year after serving time for killing a man who had picked her up when she was a victim of teenage sex trafficking.
Mr. Reed’s team of lawyers has been digging hard for new evidence and witnesses, but Mr. Benjet said the rise in public attention might also have encouraged some to speak up.
“Basically, every case I’ve worked on, the more attention that comes to the case, the more people hear about it and come forward,” he said. “It just takes a lot of time for innocence cases to get proven.”
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