The latest twist in the long-running saga of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed again raises troubling questions about the state’s reliance on the death penalty.
Reed’s impending execution two years ago sparked an international outcry with calls for a reprieve ranging from Senator Ted Cruz to the singer Beyoncé, the Texas Observer reported.
This month, a judge appointed to reexamine Reed’s case closed the door on his best chance to avoid execution, releasing his findings that newly presented evidence is not enough to grant the inmate a new trial.
The Texas Tribune noted the ruling by retired state District Judge J.D. Langley is a major setback for efforts to win Reed’s freedom. The case has spawned global attention and outrage. It is habitually cited by Reed’s supporters as an example of a Black man whose rights have been railroaded by the criminal justice system.
The Observer reported Reed’s lawyers and supporters have pointed to a weight of new evidence that has emerged since he was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in 1996 in Bastrop. Over the past 20 years, forensic experts, reporters, independent investigators, and attorneys have undermined the state of Texas’s case against Reed.
At the same time, they have pointed to evidence against Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a former police officer who was also convicted of kidnapping and raping a woman while on duty after the death of Stites, the Observer reported.
Texas’s highest criminal court halted Reed’s execution two years ago. The justices sent the case back to the trial court to review several claims, most importantly that Reed is innocent of the murder that landed him on death row more than two decades ago.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Parole—a seven-strong panel of gubernatorial appointees—issued a unanimous recommendation to Governor Greg Abbott that he grant a 120-day stay of Reed’s execution.
Abbott did not get to decide on that recommendation. Just hours later, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals referred the case back to the trial court to examine new evidence and reconsider key parts of the case including Reed’s innocence.
Reed’s family became hopeful that he might be granted a new trial after spending more than 23 years on death row. Langley presided over a nearly two-week hearing over the summer to review claims of Reed’s innocence, and examine whether Bastrop County prosecutors withheld evidence or placed false evidence before jurors.
Now, Reed is once again facing the prospect of execution in Texas, despite the troubling questions about his conviction. Langley, in a 50-page ruling, sided with the state’s arguments that Fennell was a credible witness, supporting his description of Stites leaving their apartment to go to work the morning before she was found dead.