Court Battles

Supreme Court raises stakes with review of death row inmate’s DNA request

Paul Weber/The Associated Press
Supporters rally to stop the execution of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed outside the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. In his five years as Texas’ governor, Republican Greg Abbott has overseen the execution of nearly 50 prisoners while only once sparing a condemned man’s life, after a victims’ family asked him to do so. (AP Photo/Paul Weber)

Criminal justice reform advocates expressed guarded optimism this week after the Supreme Court agreed to review a death row inmate’s request for DNA testing of evidence. 

Rodney Reed, who maintains his innocence in the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites, has long sought genetic testing of items collected from the Bastrop County, Texas, crime scene, including materials recovered near the truck belonging to the victim’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, whom Reed’s attorneys have pointed to as a possible suspect in the case.

The issue before the Supreme Court is a technical one dealing with when the window closed for Reed to request for DNA testing. Lower federal courts are divided over whether the clock begins when a trial court denies the request or whether it begins after the appeals process plays out.

Reed is challenging a federal appeals court’s ruling that the two-year clock on his request began to run in 2014, after a Texas state court denied his bid for DNA testing but while state-level appeals were pending. In his petition to the justices, Reed’s lawyers called this procedural approach “illogical.”

Advocates say the Supreme Court’s move to review the lower court’s interpretation is a step in the right direction.

“I was pleased to see the Supreme Court will take up the Rodney Reed case,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s capital punishment project. “Mr. Reed has a strong claim of innocence and Texas sought to close the doors to federal court review through an erroneous interpretation of the filing deadline for his federal lawsuit.” 

“The stakes of this question are important for anyone with substantial claims of innocence seeking DNA testing,” she added, “but they are especially important to those like Mr. Reed on death row.” 

The justices’ move Monday to grant review is just the latest development in Reed’s long battle in the courts to secure DNA testing of the crime scene evidence. He first sought the testing in 1999, but the state refused, instead scheduling an execution date. Underlying Reed’s dispute is his claim that Texas law regarding DNA testing violates constitutional due process protections.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, expressed mixed sentiments about the Supreme Court taking up Reed’s case. Dunham said his optimism was tempered by some of the conservative majority court’s recent decisions, including rulings that allowed executions to go forward even though factual development in lower courts was not fully complete.

“It has big stakes,” Dunham said of Reed’s case. “It has major implications for either redressing miscarriages of justice — or institutionalizing them.”

Reed, a Black man, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998 by an all-white jury for the murder of Stites, a white woman.

The prosecution asserted that Reed kidnapped and raped Stites the morning she died and presented evidence showing that his DNA matched sperm discovered in Stites’s vaginal tract. At sentencing, the jury also heard allegations of unrelated sexual assaults by Reed.

Reed initially told police he did not know Stites. Later, he said the two had been engaged in a secret affair. He has long sought DNA testing of items recovered from her body and clothing, as well as those found near the truck belonging to Fennell, who was then a police officer.

Fennell failed a polygraph test following Stites’s murder. Court records show that the apartment he shared with Stites was never searched.

Years later, Fennell would serve a nearly 10-year sentence for an unrelated 2007 crime that involved kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman in his custody while working as a law enforcement officer. 

In a statement on Monday, Reed’s legal team said it is looking forward to the Supreme Court considering its arguments.

“New evidence of innocence points to Stites’ white fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, as the perpetrator. But Texas and the Texas courts have refused to allow DNA testing of key crime-scene evidence, including the ligature handled by the perpetrator in the commission of the crime,” the statement read. “And when Mr. Reed sought access to DNA testing in federal court, the federal courts wrongly threw out his claims as untimely, reasoning that he could have started his federal action while the state-court proceedings were still pending.”

Attorneys for respondents, including county and state officials, did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Phillips & Ranney, the Texas law firm that has represented Fennell.

The Supreme Court had denied an earlier petition from Reed in 2020. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a statement at the time that aspects of Reed’s case remained uncertain, saying that it “presented a substantial body of evidence that, if true, casts doubt on the veracity and scientific validity of the evidence on which Reed’s conviction rests.”

“While the Court today declines to review the instant petition, it of course does not pass on the merits of Reed’s innocence or close the door to future review,” she added.

The court’s move to hear Reed’s case means that four or more justices agreed to take up his petition, though the exact voting breakdown was not made public, as is customary.

Dunham, of the Death Penalty Information Center, said he hopes that the justices agreed to review Reed’s case because they seek to redress what he described as an “obviously erroneous decision” by the New Orleans-based lower federal appeals court. But he cautioned that this conservative Supreme Court has a track record of “violating all the traditional rules of appellate review when it comes to death penalty cases.” 

“It will be another bellwether as to whether the court is serious about providing innocent people access to meaningful federal review, or whether it is trying to shut down meaningful access to the federal courts,” Dunham said.

Tags Death row death row inmate DNA DNA testing Justice reform Rodney Reed Supreme Court Supreme Court

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