Rodney Reed, the Texas death row inmate who was convicted in the 1996 death of Stacey Stites, deserves a new trial, according to Heather Stobbs, the victim’s cousin.
“If we’re seeking justice for Stacey, we have to make sure there’s absolutely no doubt that the person who’s been sentenced for this and being held responsible is the right person,” Stobbs told NBC News.
“He deserves a chance to clear his name,” she said.
Reed, 51, is scheduled for execution on Nov. 20, but supporters, including a bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers, have called on Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to put the execution on hold so unanswered questions and discrepancies can be examined.
“You can’t put somebody to death with all of these questions,” Stobbs said. “The amount of questions coming out on a daily basis is unbelievable — and that’s what I find crazy.”
During his 1998 trial, prosecutors alleged that Reed raped and strangled Stites, 19, in Bishop, east of Austin. DNA evidence found on Stites matched DNA evidence collected from Reed as part of an unrelated sexual assault investigation. Reed was never convicted in that or any other sexual assault case.
After initially denying that he knew Stites, Reed later changed his story: he and Stites were having a secret, consensual sexual relationship. Reed, who is black, said the relationship was kept hidden because Stites was white. Reed’s DNA found on Stites was the only physical evidence connecting him to the murder scene.
An all-white jury sentenced Reed to death.
After his conviction, multiple witnesses came forward to point the finger at Stities fiancé, police officer Jimmy Fennell. A co-worker at Stites’ grocery store said Stites admitted to having an affair with a black man and would avoid Fennell when he came to visit the store to avoid altercations.
Investigators originally focused on Fennell, who failed two polygraph tests, before focusing on Reed.
Fennell, who remained a police officer, was later convicted of kidnapping and raping a woman in his custody and served 10 years in prison, according to KXAN News.
Arthur Snow Jr., a prisoner who served time with Fennell, told investigators in October 2019 that Fennell killed Stites because “sleeping around with a black man behind his back.”
Reed’s family has long insisted that his conviction stems from a police cover-up.
“People were standing up for their brother in blue — that’s where it started and that’s where it stems,” Reed’s brother, Rodrick Reed, said.
Reed’s supporters claim DNA was never collected from the belt used to strangle Stites and the home she shared with Fennell was never searched, despite his early status as a person of interest. Forensic evidence that was later reexamined put her time of death hours earlier than expected, as well, which could change where she was killed.
Stobbs told NBC News that the murder caused a schism among the family, between those who think Reed is the culprit and those who think he needs a new trial.
Stobbs said “everything fell into place" after she became convinced that Stites and Reed were romantically involved.
“But in order to believe that, you have to believe that Stacey was cheating on her ,” Stobbs said. “Unfortunately, I think race played a big part in all of it.”