The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal from Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed, who has been trying without success to have crime-scene evidence tested for DNA, saying the results could prove his innocence.
The decision, delivered without comment from the court, ended Reed’s bid to have the evidence tested under a state DNA law but opened another avenue to pursue in the coming weeks — a federal lawsuit arguing that blocking access to the tests violates the Bastrop man’s civil rights, his lawyer said Monday.
“Rodney Reed has asked for DNA testing of crime scene evidence that would unquestionably have been tested if the murder were investigated today,” said Bryce Benjet, Reed’s lead lawyer.
Prosecutors have fought to deny Reed access to the evidence for about four years, arguing that testing would not be helpful in solving the 1996 Bastrop-area murder of Stacey Stites because the items had been contaminated by repeated handling during and after Reed’s trial.
In addition, several items were stored in the same box but not packaged separately, allowing potential DNA to mingle, prosecutors said.
“There is nothing unconstitutional in requiring evidence integrity,” they told the Supreme Court.
Bastrop County District Attorney Bryan Goertz did not return calls seeking comment Monday.
Reed’s lawyers claim he is innocent and want to test crime scene evidence that was probably touched by the killer, including Stites’ clothing and two pieces of the belt used to strangle her, to determine if modern testing methods can reveal skin cells and other DNA-bearing evidence.
New techniques can filter out or identify extraneous DNA, the lawyers argued.
However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the request in an 8-0 ruling in April 2017, saying problems with the chain of custody of the evidence raised questions about contamination and serious doubts that DNA testing would produce reliable results.
Reed’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling, arguing that the Texas court misinterpreted the state law that allows for DNA testing after a conviction — particularly chain-of-custody language that requires testing on items that have not been “substituted, tampered with, replaced or altered.” The Texas court invented a contamination exception that is not part of the law, they said.
With the Supreme Court declining to weigh in, efforts will be made to have lawmakers correct the court’s “restrictive and unconstitutional” interpretation of the DNA law when the Legislature meets in the first half of 2019, Benjet said.
“The Texas Legislature has repeatedly corrected the Court of Criminal Appeals by amending the DNA law, and we are confident in the coming year that the Legislature will again express their overwhelming support for DNA testing to ensure that innocent men and women are not wrongfully imprisoned or executed,” he said.
In the meantime, Reed will turn to the federal courts by filing a lawsuit seeking help, Benjet said.
“Although we had hoped that the Supreme Court would immediately take up the constitutional issues raised by the denial of DNA testing, we are also aware that the court has recognized a separate procedure for federal review of DNA cases through a civil action,” he said.
A separate Reed appeal also is awaiting a ruling from the Court of Criminal Appeals.
In that case, defense lawyers argue that Stites was probably killed by her fiance, Jimmy Fennell, who has denied the accusation. Reed’s lawyers point to new information that they believe casts doubt on Fennell’s whereabouts before Stites was killed and testimony from forensic experts who said Stites died around midnight, when she would have been alone with Fennell in their Giddings apartment.
A state judge who examined the evidence, however, found it unpersuasive and recommended that the appeals court reject Reed’s request for a new trial.