Twelve strangers gathered around a table in an upper room of a Bastrop courthouse. Bags of crime scene evidence from the homicide of a teenage girl were scattered before them. Occasionally an overwhelmed juror stood up and walked toward the window for fresh air, looking down at the empty lawn below. It was May 1998, and the town’s first capital murder trial in almost fifty years had just begun.

Days in the courtroom turned into weeks. By the end of May, the twelve were no longer strangers, and cardboard covered the windows, from which law enforcement officers instructed them to stay away. Muffled shouts and passionate chants reverberated from the lawn. Protesters surrounded the perimeter of the courthouse, news vans lined the curb, and TV reporters posed with their camera crews. Things like this just didn’t happen in Bastrop, a small Texas town thirty minutes east of Austin.

Two years earlier, on a spring day in April 1996, a person picking wildflowers on the side of a densely wooded lane ten minutes north of town discovered the body of Stacey Stites, a 19-year-old white woman, lying among the roots of a copse of pines. She was half clothed, still wearing parts of her H-E-B uniform for a shift in the produce section that she had never showed up for. Her name tag, labeled with the slogan “A Texas Tradition,” rested in the crook of her knee. It appeared that she had been raped. Police matched DNA on her person to that of 29-year-old Rodney Reed, a Black Bastrop resident who worked odd jobs around town, and arrested him on charges of rape and murder. (Reed’s DNA was already in investigative archives after it had been collected the year prior in connection to a sexual assault charge he was cleared of.) At first Reed said he didn’t know Stites. But he eventually told investigators that they were having a secret, consensual affair, hiding their relationship from Stites’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, who was a police officer in the nearby town of Giddings. Reed said Stites told him Fennell would kill her if he found out. 

The jurors in the courthouse heard lurid details of the murder for six weeks. Among the twelve was a woman in her early twenties. Melissa, who requested her real name not be used, had recently graduated from college with an English degree. She tried her hand at teaching and a few other jobs while living in Austin. When her mother fell ill, she moved back into her family’s ranch just outside of Bastrop, where she had reared horses as a young girl. Then she received a jury summons.

The jury Melissa served on ultimately convicted Reed of two counts of capital murder and sentenced him to death. Its decision sparked a 26-year battle in what has become one of the most actively contentious death penalty cases in the country. Today Reed remains on death row, without an execution date set, and maintains that he is innocent. Advocates for Reed include celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Rihanna as well as a bipartisan group of state legislators that called for Governor Greg Abbott to stop Reed’s execution in 2019.

A juror from the trial has never spoken publicly about the case or about the decision that placed Reed on death row all those years ago. In fact, Melissa has hardly talked to anyone besides her husband about that summer in 1998. Her parents say it ruined her life, and she admits deciding a man’s fate was the worst thing she’s ever had to do. Until Reed is executed or declared innocent, Melissa says she won’t be able to fully move on.

When Melissa first received the jury summons in March 1998, she was looking forward to taking off work for a couple of days. But when a court administrator told her the trial would take weeks and began to share details about the murder, she tried to argue that her job needed her. Nonetheless, she was put before defense and prosecuting attorneys for jury selection and asked about her stance on capital punishment. Melissa, who now says she didn’t understand the weight of her answer, replied that she wasn’t opposed to the death penalty. She was selected. 

Soon the trial would become contentious. Texas turned its gaze upon Bastrop. Jurors were escorted inside the courthouse through a special entrance each morning. Picketers outside the courthouse held up signs that read “All-White Jury.” (Melissa, like all the other jurors except one Latina, was Anglo.) Bastrop was about 72 percent white at the time, but there was a thriving African American cultural center and annual Juneteenth parade. 

Outside the courtroom there were several incidents in which Melissa felt targeted and intentionally intimidated. Once when she was grocery shopping, a group she recognized from the courtroom blocked both sides of the aisle so she couldn’t leave. Someone else rammed into her family’s gate at the ranch. Her dad called the sheriff and requested extra patrol on the property perimeter. “My mom will say to this day that it changed me completely,” she said to me from across the table. “That it ruined my life at the time . . . I’m just always looking over my shoulder, always fearful. I don’t want to be alone.” 

Melissa said she spent the majority of the six-week trial proceedings feeling nauseated. Prosecutors showed graphic photographs of the victim’s underwear, strangulation marks around her neck, and her decomposing body. Back in their deliberation room, the jurors studied the bags of evidence. Maps and diagrams were tacked to the wall; a large notepad easel with scribbled dates and names stood in the corner. One bag held the murder weapon: Stites’s own leather belt. Several times Melissa asked the judge if she could be excused to the restroom to avoid throwing up on the floor. “I wouldn’t say I live some super sheltered life, but I had never heard or seen this kind of evil in this detail in real life in front of my face,” she said.    

The defense’s case rested on the argument that Reed and Stites were having a consensual affair and that Fennell, Stites’s fiancé, was a more viable suspect. But they called only two witnesses to the stand, and neither could provide credible testimony of a consensual relationship. One of the witnesses misnamed Stacey “Stephanie.” The prosecution presented the jury with a thorough case on why Fennell couldn’t have committed the murder: His truck was found abandoned on the opposite side of town the morning of the murder, and they argued he would not have had enough time to murder Stites, drop off her body on the edge of town, and return to his apartment without his truck. Lawyers urged the jury to view Reed’s DNA being found inside Stites as the strongest piece of evidence presented for Reed’s conviction. “That is overwhelming evidence. That is evidence without a doubt,” said district attorney Charles Penick to the jury. 

In Melissa’s eyes, the defense’s argument fell apart, and, given the presence of Reed’s DNA, she voted along with the other eleven jurors to convict Reed of murder. The next two weeks of trial proceedings determined Reed’s punishment. Much of the testimony that followed focused on his past, information that wasn’t admissible until the sentencing portion of the trial. Before the murder of Stites, Reed had been accused of and indicted on four charges of violence against other female victims, including assault and rape. He was prosecuted for one of these charges against a woman in Wichita Falls but was acquitted. Three of these women were called to present to the courtroom the testimony of the assaults committed against them. (The fourth victim, a twelve-year-old girl, wasn’t present, but her story was read aloud to the jury.)  

Melissa said jurors examined a new set of graphic evidentiary photographs for each victim. When she closes her eyes, those stories and images are still vivid in her mind. Melissa said the prior victims’ testimonies made up her mind: Reed was guilty and his behavior was a pattern. The possibility of sentencing Reed to death caused some of the jury members to pause. But in that upper room on May 28, 1998, they all reached a consensus. The foreperson for the jury stood up and read the verdict out loud. 

A man was sentenced to death. 

Over the past 26 years Reed’s case has been subject to a decades-long game of tug-of-war within the court system. In 2002 his cousin signed an affidavit stating he was with Reed the night of the murder, a testimony he said he was prepared to give in 1998, though he was never called by the defense to present. A decade later, the Travis County medical examiner who testified at the trial recanted his assessment of Stites’s time of death.

Reed’s lawyers appealed his execution, and Reed received a stay from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2015. His execution was rescheduled for 2019. In the final days before the planned execution, though, six new witnesses came forward saying that Fennell’s behavior was abusive toward Stites. One of the new witnesses, a former H-E-B coworker of the victim, also stated that Stites told her she was having an affair with a Black man. Together with Fennell’s 2007 conviction on charges he kidnapped and sexually assaulted a woman in his police custody, Reed’s lawyers argue Stites’s fiancé was never fairly considered as a suspect. “Ms. Stites’s friends and coworkers also told police after her death that Stacey’s fiancé Jimmy Fennell was hostile, controlling, and even abusive,” said Jane Pucher, one of Reed’s attorneys with the Innocence Project, a national organization committed to the exoneration of wrongfully convicted individuals. “This evidence directly contradicted Fennell’s testimony at Rodney’s trial that the couple had a loving and trouble-free relationship and were looking forward to their wedding.” Five days before Reed was set to be executed, he was granted another stay.

Reed just turned 56 in the isolation of his cell. In April 2023 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Reed pursuing post-conviction DNA testing on the murder weapon, Stites’s belt, and Pucher is hopeful that will happen. In an unrelated June decision, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Reed’s claim of innocence and denied him a new trial. The court agreed with a 2021 ruling during an evidentiary hearing in Bastrop that new witness testimony presented by Reed’s attorneys was not credible.

While Reed’s case continues to hang in limbo, the burden of Melissa’s decision to send a man to death row that summer in 1998 weighs heavily on her. After the jury reached a verdict, Melissa immediately asked for a reassignment at work and moved out of state, hoping that leaving Bastrop would put some distance between her and her memories. She restarted her life on the East Coast and got married and had two daughters. 

With each new appeal in the case, Melissa rechecks the court transcripts and reviews every piece of evidence. When Fennell pled guilty to kidnapping and sexual assault, Melissa took a trip back to Texas. She spent a day in the Bastrop courthouse poring over case files again to see if there was anything she’d missed. “You’re always looking for some kind of confirmation that you did make the right decision and you haven’t put an innocent man on death row,” she said. “Maybe new evidence—certainly the stay of execution that was delivered last-minute by the state of Texas—those kinds of things made your heart stop beating for a minute.”

Melissa has read the new witness statements that the Innocence Project retrieved. But she keeps returning to what she saw in the Bastrop courthouse in 1998. “No one came forward,” Melissa said. “And then, years later, now they’re saying they found all these people and I’m like, where were they? The whole town knew about this. I mean, did they value his life so little that they would not come forward?” 

This year, the Innocence Project obtained affidavits from two of Melissa’s fellow jurors recanting their original decision to convict Reed. But after everything she’s read and heard, Melissa says she stands by her decision. “I one hundred and ten percent believe he did it, that he was evil, that justice was served,” she told me recently, reading aloud a handwritten note she’d scrawled before our interview.

Melissa missed living near her parents, and she decided recently to move back to Texas. Most nights here she lies awake for hours, afraid. When her husband leaves for work trips and she’s home alone with their two daughters, she fears intruders. She knows that it doesn’t make sense—that she’s safely locked inside, and there’s no present threat of danger. But the graphic pictures of battered bodies from the trial still play in her head. “I’m honored to have done my job for the state of Texas,” she said, “even at the price of my own mental well-being.”