From The Texas Observer
In April 1996, the body of Stacey Stites, a white, 20-year-old woman from Giddings, was found dumped in a field in Bastrop, southeast of Austin. A year after the crime, an extensive list of suspects was suddenly narrowed to oneRodney Reed, a 29-year-old black man from Bastrop. In less than 4 hours of deliberation, the all-white jury that heard the case convicted Reed of rape and murder, based on a single piece of DNA evidence found at the crime scene. Soon after, Reed was sentenced to death. Now, 10 years after the crime, Reed sits on death row, his case pending before the states highest criminal appeals court. A recently released documentary raises fresh questions about Reeds case and offers a detailed look at possible corruption in the small-town justice system that convicted him.
In October 2005, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remanded Reeds case to the state district court in Bastrop based on evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. In June, after hearing new evidence left out of the original trial, state District Judge Reva Towslee-Corbett ruled that Reeds attorneys failed to prove the new evidence could have changed the outcome of the trial. Reeds attorneys appealed the ruling, and the Court of Criminal Appeals is expected to take up Reeds case again this fall.
The newly released documentary, State vs. Reed, outlines evidence left out of the trial that clouds its outcome. The film was recently screened in Austin, with proceeds benefiting Reeds family. The film sheds light on the racially charged atmosphere surrounding the case: Reed is a black man accused of killing a white woman who was engaged to a white Bastrop police officer. Reed also claims he was having an affair with Stites during her engagement.
The affair could explain the one piece of DNA linking Reed to the crime scene: a small amount of sperm found in Stites body. The affair also gives motive to another possible suspect who largely escaped investigation, Stites fianc, Bastrop Police Officer Jimmy Fennell. My personal opinion when I heard that she had been killed was that Fennell did it, says former Bastrop prosecutor Steven Keng in the film. When we heard she had been having an affair with a black guy, it was like well, thats why he did it because… that would be a tremendous blow to his ego.
Reeds defenders continue to argue that the prosecution did not adequately investigate other possible suspects, including Fennell. Police officers never searched the apartment of Fennell and Stites, the last place she was known to have been. Fennell also twice failed a polygraph test when questioned about Stites death. Yet he was quickly eliminated as a suspect.
Fennells red pickup truck, which Stites reportedly took to work the morning she was killed, was found parked down the road from her body, leading investigators to suspect that she was transported in the truck. State investigators found only Stites and Fennells fingerprints in the truck.
In 2001, Reed found in his case file a previously unnoticed lab report filed by the state during his trial, which the prosecution failed to share with his defense team. The report states that DNA found on a beer can at the crime scene matched Stites and two Bastrop police officers. One of those police officers was Ed Samela, appointed lead detective for the case. 3 months after Samela began investigating the case, he was found dead from a gunshot wound to his head. The death was ruled suicide. None of this, however, has yet won Reed a new trial.