Expert coroner casts doubt on original timeline of Stacey Stites’ death

Stacey Stites
Stacey Stites

BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — Dr. Michael Baden has investigated the deaths of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Michael Brown. Wednesday he was brought in as an expert forensic pathologist to question the original sequence of events that led to Rodney Reed’s 1996 rape and murder conviction.

At one point, Rodney Reed was days away from being executed for the murder of Stacey Stites. During the original trial, prosecutors said Reed raped and murdered Stites as she pulled over for a pit stop on the way to work in Bastrop County. Her body was found along a rural road north of Bastrop in April 1996. Reed’s DNA was found on her body.

The defense is hoping Baden’s findings could undermine the state’s case that Stites was killed outside her apartment and call into question the time-of-death estimate that was used during the original trial.

On Wednesday morning, Baden and Reed’s defense lawyers went over old court documents and photographs to claim Stites was dead, face down someplace for at least 4-5 hours. Baden’s basis is based on “lividity,” which are the signs of pressure on one side of the body when someone is lying on the ground. Baden claimed a review of the evidence shows Stites was dead before midnight and had no signs of sexual assault.


KXAN Interactive Story: Murder in the Lost Pines | The Rodney Reed Case


State lawyers objected to Baden being able to testify because the hearing was called to hear separate testimony only — testimony from Jimmy Fennell’s best friend who conflicted with his original alibi.

Reed has said he and Stites were involved in a hidden romantic relationship and is innocent. The defense has pointed to Fennell, Stites’ fiance, as the person who could have murdered her. Fennell is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for kidnapping a woman who was in his custody and improper sexual conduct.

“We’re here to determine whether Jimmy Fennell lied when he testified and whether the state knew about that. I don’t believe Dr. Baden can possibly testify that he was there for that conversation,” Matt Ottoway told Judge Doug Shaver in the hearing Wednesday.

The judge permitted the testimony.

A key development Wednesday was testimony from Dr. Baden claiming there was no evidence of sexual assault. He told the court that there was no sign of forced entry — blood, tears, bruises. Instead Dr. Baden claims that the medical examiner at the time, Dr. Roberto Bayardo, simply got it wrong when he confused a normal body degradation with signs of a sexual assault.

“This is just normal appearing for a dead body,” said Dr. Baden.

Then, Reed’s defense, attorney Bryce Benjet, read with Dr. Baden a signed statement from Dr. Bayardo writing that he did not have all the information at the time of the 1996 investigation and he himself no longer believes it was sexual assault.

“For 15 years there’s been forensic evidence in this case that not only contradicts but disproves the evidence that was used to convict Mr. Reed, and this hearing is an opportunity for that to be aired,” Benjet told reporters after the hearing.

The hearing will continue through Friday. Judge Shaver will make a recommendation after Friday to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on whether he believes there is enough evidence for a new trial. That court will decide whether to uphold the conviction, grant a new trial, or ask for more information.

KXAN.com will live stream the Rodney Reed hearing all week as well. 

Follow KXAN’s Phl Prazan for the latest happenings in the courtroom:

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