A longtime forensic pathologist, testifying Wednesday on behalf of death row inmate Rodney Reed, said evidence shows that victim Stacey Stites was dead before midnight on April 22, 1996 — a time of death that points to another person as the killer.
Testifying over prosecution objections on the second day of a four-day hearing into Reed’s claims of innocence, Dr. Michael Baden said his review of crime scene and investigative documents, photos and videos disputed earlier conclusions that Stites was strangled shortly after 3 a.m. while she drove to her job at a Bastrop grocery store.
Instead, Baden testified, evidence showed that Stites had been dead for several hours before she was taken to Bastrop in the passenger seat of a pickup and her body left by the side of a rural road. The pickup was found several miles away, empty, at 5:23 a.m., but Stites’ body was not discovered until later in the afternoon.
“In my opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, she was dead before midnight” the day before her body was discovered, Baden said.
Baden also disputed conclusions that Stites had been sexually assaulted prior to death, saying there was “absolutely no evidence” of rape.
Defense lawyers argue that Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, was a more likely suspect in her death. Fennell, who was living with Stites in Giddings, has invoked his Fifth Amendment right to decline to testify in this week’s hearing on the advice of his lawyer, Robert Phillips, who said Fennell would not change his testimony from Reed’s trial 20 years ago.
“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.
Baden is a 50-year forensic pathologist and medical examiner who has handled many high-profile cases, including serving as chairman of the forensic pathology panel that investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy for the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the 1970s.
Prosecutors objected to Baden’s testimony, saying the state’s highest criminal court ordered an examination of defense claims that Fennell provided inconsistent statements of his actions the night before she died. The doctor was speaking to Reed’s innocence claims, which were contained in a Reed appeal that had been previously rejected by the Court of Criminal Appeals, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Ottoway argued.
Visiting Judge Doug Shaver rejected the objection.
On the stand, Baden said a combination of factors cemented his opinion that Stites had been killed before midnight.
First was a mucus-like substance found on the passenger side floorboard of the pickup she was supposed to have driven to work, he said. That type of discharge from the nose and mouth is related to decomposition and takes three to four hours to develop, Baden said.
Second, crime scene photos and videotape revealed blood had pooled in the front of Stites’ body — “fixed lividity” that shows Stites had lain face down for at least five hours before her body was left on the roadside in an upright position, Baden testified.
“Around midnight, she was already dead,” he said. “Fixed lividity takes hours to settle after death.”
Third, video showed that rigor mortis was leaving Stites’ body by the time it was discovered — a situation that would take about 20 hours given the weather conditions at the time, Baden said.
The doctor disputed claims that Stites had been raped by Reed, saying his examination of autopsy results showed no sexual assault had taken place. Instead, the medical examiner more than two decades ago mistook normal muscle relaxation after death with evidence of assault, Baden said.
On cross-examination, Ottoway noted that there was no formal measure of lividity, rigor mortis or body temperature at the crime scene to provide best results for a time of death estimate. The prosecutor also indicated that the best forensic results are obtained by viewing the actual autopsy, not grainy photographs.
Other evidence indicated that Stites was heading toward her work shift at H-E-B when she was killed, Ottoway pointed out, including wearing her work clothes and a knee brace stuffed with tissue paper to reduce chaffing.
But Baden replied that he based his estimates on evidence that strongly showed that Stites had been dead for hours before she would have left Giddings for her work shift.
“It couldn’t have happened the way described,” he said.
Defense lawyers also called Lydia Clay-Jackson, one of Reed’s trial lawyers, to return to a subject discussed Tuesday – the CNN interview with Curtis Davis, a close friend of Fennell’s who said Fennell discussed staying out late drinking the night before Stites disappeared. That contrasted with Fennell’s trial testimony that he and Stites spent most of that night together.
Clay-Jackson testified that, had she known about the discrepancy, she would have more aggressively questioned Fennell during Reed’s 1998 trial and would have directed a forensic pathologist to focus on Stites’ time of death.
“The gloves would have come off,” she said.