By Michael Graczyk Houston Chronicle
AUSTIN — With about a dozen relatives and supporters of condemned inmate Rodney Reed crowded into a packed courtroom, the convicted killer's lawyers asked the state's highest criminal court Wednesday to grant him a new trial for the rape-slaying of a Central Texas woman 12 years ago.
"Mr. Reed has proclaimed his innocence since Day 1," Morris Overstreet, one of his lawyers, told the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, where he served a term as a judge in the 1990s. "Even though he now stands convicted, he maintains he is innocent of this offense."
Reed, who is black, is awaiting execution for the abduction, rape and strangling of a 19-year-old white woman, Stacey Stites, in Bastrop County, about 30 miles southeast of Austin. Reed has contended the two were having a secret affair, even though Stites was engaged to soon marry a police officer when she was killed.
Stites' sister said after the nearly hourlong hearing that the right man was in prison.
"The evidence that shows he is guilty is so overwhelming compared to the circumstantial evidence disproving his guilt," Debra Oliver said. "This man is guilty."
In filings with the court, Reed's attorneys described the racial aspects of the case as explosive. On Wednesday, they accused prosecutors of withholding evidence and said they have new evidence to prove Reed's innocence, specifically DNA results from a beer can found near the murder scene. That can failed to exclude a friend of Stites' fiance and a fellow police officer as possible participants in the killing, they said.
A review by experts they selected to look at forensic evidence presented at trial concluded it was flawed and unreliable, and that a videotape by crime-scene investigators showed the murder site compromised by shoddy techniques.
Prosecutors denied wrongdoing or withholding evidence and said evidence Reed's attorneys want considered isn't new and was available at the time of Reed's trial. They scoffed at Reed's insistence the sex was consensual because he and the victim had a secret relationship.
"There is absolutely no credible evidence it ever existed," Tina Miranda, an assistant attorney general, told the court. "There's no reliable witness testimony that can attest to this secret affair."
Reed's attorneys argued the actual killer was Stites' fiance, Jimmy Fennell Jr., a Giddings police officer at the time. Fennell recently resigned as a sergeant on the Georgetown police force after he was charged last year in a rape case.
Fennell was investigated but ruled out as a suspect in Stites' slaying. He said he was home and asleep when Stites was killed in the early morning hours of April 23, 1996, as she headed to work at a supermarket in Bastrop. Her body was discovered later that day along a rural road.
"What happened was very tragic for Stacey, but I don't think any family member would want the wrong person punished for the offense," Overstreet said. "I would think they'd want the true murderer of their daughter brought to justice.
"What we're saying is, it's not really Rodney Reed."
Reed was arrested nearly a year later, after his DNA surfaced during investigation of an unrelated sexual assault case.
Reed, now 40, was acquitted in a previous sexual assault case and had charges dismissed in another, Overstreet acknowledged. But at least two witnesses testifying during the punishment phase of his capital murder trial identified him as the person who raped them.
"They've got the right man," Oliver said, adding that she spoke with women who said they had been raped by Reed. "There's many cases against him."
Miranda said prosecutors linked Reed to five rapes and one attempted rape, the last one six months after Stites was killed.
"That's how his name was even connected with this case in the first place," Miranda said, adding that Reed's DNA was tied to at least two unsolved rape cases.
Sandra Reed, the convict's mother, accused prosecutors of railroading her son.
"My son had no motive to kill her," she said, insisting she's not even considered the court, which upheld the conviction and death sentence in 2000, could reject this latest appeal. "I refuse to think negative."
Overstreet said there's no timetable for a decision, which could come anywhere from two to six months from now. Although each side was allowed 20 minutes to present its arguments, the judges — seven members of the nine-judge court were present — extended the time considerably as they peppered attorneys with questions about the legal issues in the case.
"The most they can do is to order a new trial," Overstreet said. "Our position is if the jury at the time of the trial had an opportunity to view all of the evidence we know now exists, they would have made a different decision."