Death row inmate Rodney Reed’s original trial lawyers took to the stand on the third day of a hearing looking into his innocence claims, telling the court they would have presented a different case had they known that victim Stacey Stites’ fiancé had provided inconsistent statements about his whereabouts the night before her murder.
The four-day hearing in Bastrop addresses a CNN interview from last year, in which a Bastrop County sheriff’s investigator, Curtis Davis, told reporters that Jimmy Fennell, Stites’ fiancé, gave him a different account of what happened the night before Stites’ death than he testified to in court. Davis said that Fennell told him he was out drinking after playing baseball and came home late, after Stites went to bed. In court, Fennell said he had been home with Stites most of the evening.
“Why would a guy lie about that? What motive?” Calvin Garvie, who defended Reed in 1998, said on the stand Thursday. “Those are two different statements. On one of the most important days of his life.”
On April 23, 1996, Stites, 19, was found raped and strangled along a rural road in Bastrop County with Reed’s DNA on her body. Reed was convicted of capital murder in 1998 and sentenced to death. For 20 years, he has maintained his innocence. His attorneys point to Fennell as the more likely killer.
Garvie said Thursday the defense had been strapped getting ready for Reed’s original trial, with only six months to prepare and three attorneys to interview 278 state witnesses — a daunting, if not impossible task, he said. “We had a limited time to do everything,” Garvie said. “They probably had a year or more ahead of us.”
He said if they had known about Fennell’s inconsistent statements, they could have talked to more witnesses who might have been drinking with him that night, which could have changed the outcome.
The statements came after explosive testimony Wednesday, when expert forensic pathologist Michael Baden, known for his work in the John F. Kennedy assassination, said that Stites had been dead before midnight on April 22, 1996 — a timeline that would point to a killer other than Reed. In 1998, the medical examiner said Stites had been killed around 3 a.m. April 23 on her way to work. Baden said rigor mortis and “fixed lividity,” or where blood had pooled in the body, showed otherwise. He also said there was no visible sign Stites was raped.
His testimony was put on despite prosecution objections that it was outside the scope of the hearing, which state prosecutor Matthew Ottoway said was meant to answer questions about Fennell’s inconsistent statements at the request of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Visiting Judge Doug Shaver allowed it.
Lydia Clay-Jackson, a court-appointed lawyer for Reed, said with that new information, she would have pushed harder against Fennell and would have asked a pathologist to look further into Stites’ time of death.
But Ottoway said the defense had aggressively pursued Fennell as the killer, introducing mounds of evidence at trial, including that his home had never been searched, that he had sold his truck after the slaying, that he failed a polygraph test and had invoked his right to an attorney. Ottoway also said Reed’s defense team had presented evidence in later hearings on inconsistencies in the timeline the morning of Stites’ death, including in a writ filed in 2006. He said a new timeline would have had no bearing on a medical examiner’s opinion from an autopsy, which considers only scientific evidence.
“What does Jimmy Fennell getting home later have to do with an autopsy?” Ottoway said.
He said there was other evidence Stites was killed on her way to work, including that she was found dead in her H-E-B uniform. Ottoway also said the defense assumed Davis’ statements to CNN were truthful and that he remembered his conversation with Fennell from 20 years ago correctly.
Fennell, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for raping a woman in his custody when he was a Georgetown police officer, refused to testify at Reed’s four-day hearing, pleading his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions. His attorney, Robert Phillips, said Fennell stands by the testimony he gave 20 years ago at trial: that he was home with Stites the evening before she was killed.
“Mr. Fennell and his family remain outraged that he continues to be made a ‘suspect’ in this horrific crime committed by Rodney Reed,” Phillips said in a written statement.
Reed has said that he and Stites were having an affair, which would explain his sperm in her body. Clay-Jackson said the defense did not present that at the original trial because she knew state prosecutors would introduce Reed’s two prior sexual assault offenses if she did.
The state called its first witnesses late in the day Thursday, among them former Texas Ranger Lynn “Rocky” Wardlow, lead investigator into Stites’ death. The state will continue its case Friday, when the hearing is expected to conclude.