Editor’s note: This post was updated on November 15 to reflect the Texas parole board’s unanimous vote to delay Rodney Reed’s execution.
Rodney Reed has seven days to fight for his life.
The 51-year-old is set to be executed on November 20 for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites, and in recent months, his case has drawn nationwide attention, largely due to support from celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, and Beyoncé. Former rivals Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke joined mounting calls from Texas politicians urging Governor Abbott to halt Reed’s execution in light of new evidence and witnesses who can corroborate some of Reed’s claims.
Though Reed has had supporters fighting for his innocence since his conviction, the national movement gained momentum with the involvement of Kardashian West, the reality star turned criminal justice reform activist who has funded and lobbied for the commutation of seventeen first-time nonviolent drug offenders serving life sentences. Kardashian West is currently studying law under the mentorship of attorneys from #cut50, an advocacy group seeking to reduce the nationwide prison population, and has spoken out about Reed’s case several times since October.
Reed, a black man, was found guilty of murder in 1998 by an all-white jury in Bastrop, but the racial complexity involved in the verdict is just the beginning of the years of controversy that have followed the case.
Here’s what you need to know:
On the afternoon of April 23, 1996, the body of nineteen-year-old Stacey Stites was discovered by a passing driver in the brush along FM 1441 in Bastrop. She was wearing a black bra and jeans, while her white T-shirt was found closer to the road along with a broken braided leather belt. She had been strangled with it.
The night before, her mother Carol saw Stacey and her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, heading into their apartment in Giddings, a small town about half an hour away from Bastrop. Fennell, a Giddings police officer, later testified that Stites left their apartment around 3 a.m. in his red pickup to arrive at her 4 a.m. shift at the Bastrop H-E-B. Though Stites never arrived at work, the red pickup was discovered by a local patrolman the morning of April 23 behind Bastrop High School.
The truck’s doors were locked, and a piece of the belt used to strangle Stites was found on the ground near the driver’s side door. Inside, investigators found Stites’ right shoe. The only fingerprints lifted from the truck belonged to Stites and Fennell, while DNA samples recovered from Stites’ body were a match for Reed.
The Case Against Reed
Fennell was the first person of interest in the case, but investigators couldn’t make sense of how he would have abandoned his truck and returned home from Bastrop to Giddings. Beyond that, the sperm and saliva recovered from Stites’ body didn’t match him. When Reed was discovered to be a match nearly a year after the murder, he became the prime suspect.
Expert testimony from Dr. Roberto Bayardo, the medical examiner who conducted Stites’ autopsy, further implicated Reed. Much of the state’s case centered around the time of death estimated by Bayardo, who gave his opinion that the sperm could not have survived in the vaginal cavity for more than 24 hours, meaning Reed’s DNA had been deposited in the hours before Stites’ death.
After Reed was convicted, during the punishment phase of his trial, the state painted a picture of Reed’s violent past with women, pointing to five accusations of sexual assault against him, including one from a twelve-year-old girl. Reed had never actually been convicted of sexual assault and was prosecuted for only one of those cases, for which he was acquitted. On November 12, Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and outspoken anti-death penalty advocate, cast doubt on the allegations regarding the twelve-year-old, pointing to mishandling of DNA evidence, and alleging that the victim named someone else as her attacker multiple times.
Though Reed initially denied knowing Stites, he later said that the two had been having an affair. During the 1998 trial, his defense did not present much credible evidence of a relationship, but now at least four witnesses have come forward to corroborate Reed’s claims. Three of them were Stites’ coworkers at H-E-B. In a statement given to Reed’s attorneys with the Innocence Project, Alicia Slater said Stites had confided in her that she was not excited about her upcoming marriage to Fennell, and that she “was sleeping with a black guy named Rodney and that she didn’t know what her fiancé would do if he found out.” An additional three witnesses came forward last week with testimony that Stites was afraid of her fiancé.
In a sworn affidavit filed in early October, a life insurance salesperson recalled meeting with Fennell and Stites in November 1995. The person (whose name has been redacted) says Stites wondered why she would need life insurance since she was so young, to which Fennell allegedly responded, “If I ever catch you messing around on me, I will kill you and no one will ever know it was me that killed you.” At least one other witness has come forward with claims that the month before Stites’ death, Fennell had learned she had been having an affair with a black man.
Jim Clampit, a former deputy at the Lee County Sheriff’s Office who knew Fennell, also told Reed’s defense team that at Stites’ funeral, he heard Fennell say something along the lines of “you got what you deserved” to Stites’ body.
Twelve years after his fiancé’s death, Fennell was convicted of kidnapping and improper sexual misconduct that took place while he was on duty as a Georgetown police officer. Arthur J. Snow Jr., who met Fennell in 2010 at the Stevenson Unit in Cuero, Texas, signed a sworn affidavit in October alleging that Fennell tried to curry favor with him and other members of the Aryan Brotherhood at the prison by sharing that he had killed his “n—– loving fiancé.”
In the years since the trial, Reed’s defense team has worked not only to implicate Fennell, but also to poke holes in the state’s forensic evidence. Bayardo, who estimated Stites’ time of death based on the sperm evidence, argued that it could not have remained intact more than 24 to 26 hours after sex. However, Bayardo has recanted his statement, admitting that his time of death was unreliable.
Forensic pathologist Michael Baden, who reviewed the case, believes that the manner in which the blood settled in Stites’ body meant that she had been dead somewhere between four and six hours before she was placed on the side of the road. This would put her time of death earlier in the night, before she would have left for her early-morning shift at H-E-B.
To this day, the murder weapon that was found near Stites’ body and matched the marks around her neck has never been tested for DNA evidence, though prosecutors say that it has been handled by so many people—from law enforcement to curious members of the jury—that such testing would be a waste of time. Aside from the sperm recovered from Stites’ body, there is no DNA evidence, fingerprints, hairs, or footprints that point to Reed at the abandoned truck or where Stites’ body was found. Prosecutors say that the sperm is all they need to prove Reed killed Stites.
What happens now?
Reed is one of 215 inmates currently on death row in Texas, which leads the nation in executions. During Governor Abbott’s five-year tenure, he has stopped only one execution out of 47, converting a death sentence to life in prison in 2018. Calls to halt Reed’s execution continue to come in by the day—on November 15, the Texas parole board voted unanimously to halt Reed’s execution, recommending a 120-day delay—but the decision ultimately rests with Abbott.
With less than a week until his execution, Reed is gaining new supporters every day. In an interview with NBC News this week, Stites’ cousin Heather Stobbs said Reed deserves a chance to clear his name. “You can’t put somebody to death with all these questions,” she said. “The amount of questions coming out on a daily basis is unbelievable—and that’s what I find crazy.”
This post initially misstated that Bastrop was in East Texas; we regret the error.