Justices consider Texas rape-murder case

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Posted: Oct 30, 2014 3:05 PM
Justices consider Texas rape-murder case

WASHINGTON (AP) — A black inmate on Texas' death row who claims he had a clandestine relationship with a white woman but did not rape or kill her is asking the Supreme Court to take his case.

Rodney Reed tells the court that his trial lawyers did a poor job defending him and he suggests that the victim's fiance, a police officer now imprisoned for a sex crime, could have been the killer.

The secret affair that Reed claims he had with Stacey Stites, after first denying he knew her, is one among many unusual and sometimes conflicting aspects of a case that has aroused passionate support from those who believe he is innocent and equally fervent cries that he should be put to death.

A judge has set Reed's execution for Jan. 14.

The Innocence Project is working the case. At this stage, Reed's lawyers want the Supreme Court to order a federal judge to evaluate Reed's argument that his constitutional right to a competent defense was violated. The court could say as early as Monday what it will do.

"What would this trial have looked like if the lawyers had done what they were supposed to do? All of the evidence against Rodney Reed basically evaporates," said Bryce Benjet, who has represented Reed since 2002.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in court papers that Reed's appeal "amply supports a pattern of delay," but raises no issues worth the justices' time. Abbott noted that 11 state and five federal judges have rejected Reed's claim of innocence, "and this rejection is not for lack of effort or resources."

Stites was 19 years old in April 1996 when her body was found along a rural road outside Bastrop, Texas, about 30 miles southeast of Austin. She had been strangled; the medical examiner said there was evidence of a sexual assault.

Reed was arrested almost a year after the slaying when his DNA surfaced in the investigation of an unrelated sexual assault case and it matched genetic evidence from Stites' body.

He first said he didn't know the victim, then asserted he kept the relationship a secret from police because he did not want to be considered a suspect. Reed's lawyers also have described the racial aspects of the case as explosive.

Reed said he and Stites had been involved in a romantic relationship for several months. The sperm found by investigators and the medical examiner was his, but he said the sex was consensual.

It was not the first time Reed tried to deflect a charge of sexual assault by saying the woman consented. Using that argument, he had been acquitted of a 1987 rape.

But the jury in the Stites case didn't buy his story, especially after the medical examiner's testimony buttressed the prosecution's case that the sexual assault occurred just before the killing.

No other evidence — no eyewitnesses, no fingerprints — linked Reed to the crime.

The medical examiner has since retracted important elements of the findings he presented to jurors at Reed's trial.

But if Reed didn't kill Stites, who did?

The defense team has suggested it could have been Stites' fiance, Jimmy Fennell Jr. The former police officer is serving a 10-year prison term for kidnapping and improper sexual activity with a woman in his custody.

Fennell initially was one of several suspects in Stites' death, but investigators could not match the DNA they found at the scene. Authorities never sought to search Fennell's apartment, even though he and Stites lived there together and it's the last place she was seen alive.

Bolstering Reed's claim, results of two lie detector tests found Fennell was deceptive when asked whether he strangled or hit Stites. The trial judge ruled the test results were inadmissible, a ruling upheld on appeal.

One last oddity is that one of the judges who has weighed evidence in Reed's appeals over the years is the daughter of the judge who presided over Reed's trial. Only in May did state Judge Reva Towslee-Corbett say she would step aside from the case.

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Follow Mark Sherman on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/shermancourt