With dwindling opportunities to avoid execution, death row inmate Rodney Reed of Bastrop has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to allow DNA testing on crime scene evidence that defense lawyers argue could establish his innocence.
Defense lawyers argued that the state’s highest criminal court, which denied Reed’s request for additional DNA testing in April, unfairly and unreasonably interpreted the state’s DNA testing law to create a hurdle that is impossible for Reed and many other inmates to meet.
“DNA testing in Texas remains largely unavailable (to inmates) due to unduly restrictive judicial interpretations” by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Reed’s lawyers told the high court in a petition filed Thursday afternoon.
Reed was sentenced to death in the 1996 strangulation murder of Stacey Stites, whose body was found along a rural Bastrop County road after she failed to show up for her early-morning shift at a Bastrop grocery store.
Reed’s lawyers are seeking DNA tests on any crime scene evidence that was likely touched by the killer — including Stites’ clothing, two pieces of the belt used to strangle her and her name tag, which was left atop her body — in hope that modern testing methods can discover skin cells and other DNA-bearing evidence that had been left behind.
The belt, they argued, had never been tested “despite the obvious evidentiary value of such test results.”
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied the DNA tests, ruling that problems with the chain of custody of the evidence raised serious doubts about the reliability of future testing because of cross contamination. The items Reed wants tested had been handled during Reed’s trial and, in some instances, were stored in the same container afterward, the court said in an 8-0 ruling.
Reed’s lawyers argued that the Texas court created a legal standard that does not exist in Chapter 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the state law that gives inmates access to DNA testing that wasn’t previously available or performed before trial.
Under that law, inmates are only required to show that the chain of custody was sufficient to establish that that the evidence “has not been substituted, tampered with, replaced or altered in any material respect,” they told the Supreme Court.
“The (Texas court) read a possible contamination element into Chapter 64’s chain of custody element where none exists in the statute,” defense lawyers said.
The result is a fundamentally unfair standard that places “an impossible burden on a convicted person with respect to evidence over which he or she has no control,” they argued.
Reed first sought to test many of the items in 1999 but was denied. He renewed the request in 2014 after the law on Chapter 64 testing took effect, the lawyers said.
Reed’s Supreme Court petition also accused the Court of Criminal Appeals of applying a double standard — denying Reed’s request for testing based on possible contamination while routinely allowing prosecutors to introduce DNA evidence at trial despite contamination risks.
Reed’s Supreme Court appeal is separate from another appeal that is pending before the Court of Criminal Appeals. In that appeal, Reed is seeking another trial, arguing that newly discovered evidence bolsters the defense’s theory that Stites had been murdered by her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell.
Last month, however, visiting Judge Doug Shaver recommended that the appeals court deny Reed’s request, saying his review found the evidence to be unpersuasive.