BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — Rodney Reed’s defense team worked Tuesday to show an alternative timeline for the whereabouts of murder victim Stacey Stites’ former fiancé on the night before her killing, but the state appeared to undermine the testimony of some key witnesses.
The defense first called Curtis Davis to the stand. Davis is a Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office investigator and former friend of Jimmy Fennell, who was set to marry Stites, 19, just days before she was killed.
Davis made statements to CNN in a recent interview that called into question Fennell’s testimony at trial. Fennell originally told a jury that on the night before Stites was found dead in April of 1996 he had gone home early after coaching little league baseball, showered with his fiancé and then gone to sleep.
But Davis told CNN that Fennell said he had gone out drinking after little league and came home later.
Reed’s defense has seized on Davis’ remarks, and they are casting doubt on Fennell’s original testimony. Davis’ CNN interview, and the validity of Fennell’s testimony at trial, are key reasons the State Court of Criminal Appeals remanded Reed’s case back to Bastrop County for a four-day hearing and further fact-finding.
The Bastrop District Court was completely packed. Most of the crowd was composed of Rodney Reed supporters, including nearly a dozen members of his immediate family and friends wearing “free Rodney Reed” T-shirts. Members of the Stites family were also present. Reed sat silent and alert at the defense table in red-and-white-striped jail clothes.
On the stand, Davis agreed that the transcript of his CNN interview was valid and Fennell did say he had gone drinking. But Davis also admitted he made assumptions in the interview, and Fennell did not tell him crucial details about the night.
Under questioning from Assistant Attorney General Matthew Ottoway, Davis said Fennell never told him when he arrived back home, when the baseball practice ended or when Stites went to sleep.
“Those were assumptions,” Davis said, referencing remarks he made to CNN.
The defense called David Hall, a Giddings police officer at the time of the murder, friend of Fennell and fellow little league coach.
Hall said he was with Fennell at baseball practice that evening, and he did not recall the two drinking together. Hall said Fennell gave him a ride home after little league. The defense appeared to show that Fennell could have gone out later, after dropping Hall off, and been drinking with an unknown person.
Hall said he did not know where Fennell went after dropping him off. But, again, the state’s questioning showed Hall was not 100 percent clear on the evening’s events two decades past.
Nina Smith, a woman who was involved in the little league and opened the concession stand, said she had never seen anyone drinking at the fields or in the parking lot.
Ottoway objected numerous times to the defense team’s questioning. He called many of Davis and Hall’s statements hearsay. Ottoway pointed out on several occasions that after two decades witnesses were no longer sure of what happened the afternoon and evening of April 22, 1996.
Robert Phillips, an attorney for Fennell, released a statement explaining why he advised his client to invoke the Fifth Amendment in response to any questions about the case.
“It is not because Mr. Fennell would be changing his testimony from the original Rodney Reed trial (he would not) or because he has anything to hide (he does not). It is solely because I, as his lawyer, believe that the credible testimony he gave twenty years ago at the original trial cannot be clarified or improved upon in any subsequent testimony, and that the creative cross examination of his lawyers will only have one objective: to try to expose any slight deviations in Mr. Fennell’s memory from 20 years ago, and make them out to be much larger than they are.”
Fennell did not end up taking the stand. He provided an affidavit explaining his opposition to answering questions, and Reed’s defense team accepted that it was not necessary to bring him out and make him invoke the Fifth Amendment.
Fennell is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for kidnapping a woman who was in his custody and improper sexual conduct. The victim accused Fennell of rape. He is expected to be released from prison in 2018.
Reed’s defense attorney, Bryce Benjet, is expected to bring forensic pathologists to testify during the hearing. The state argued that should not happen, but Visiting Judge Doug Shaver will allow it. The defense team has previously used independent forensic pathologists to examine Stites’ autopsy and evidence and call into question the time-of-death estimate used at trial. The pathology findings cited by the defense could undermine the state’s case that Stites was killed outside her apartment after leaving for an early morning grocery store shift.
Ottoway said, “there is no link between Fennell’s statement and forensic pathology.”
“I do not see how the allegation that you hear that Jimmy Fennell arrived home approximately one-and-a-half to two hours after what he testified in trial has anything to do with forensic pathology,” Ottoway said. “I see no relevance to that, whatsoever.”
Following the hearing, Judge Shaver will make a recommendation to the Court of Criminal Appeals, and that court will make a decision on the case.
The state asked for Fennell to be kept in Bastrop for the duration of the hearing in case he changes his mind and wants to testify.
Reed was convicted and sentenced to death by a Bastrop County jury in 1997 for Stites’ murder. The state was days away from executing Reed in 2015, before the State Court of Criminal Appeals paused his execution.
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