HOUSTON — A Texas prisoner who has long claimed his innocence in the murder of a woman 23 years ago was days away from his execution on Friday when an appeals court stepped in to suspend his death sentence indefinitely.
Court Stops Execution of Rodney Reed in Texas After Outcry Court …
The dramatic decision by the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas halted the execution of the prisoner, Rodney Reed, and ordered the court where he was originally tried to consider new evidence in the case, including testimony from eyewitnesses who have come forward in recent months pointing toward the victim’s fiancé as another suspect.
The court’s ruling came just hours after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had also supported halting the execution and recommended that Gov. Greg Abbott grant a 120-day reprieve for Mr. Reed, 51, one of 215 prisoners on Texas’ death row.
“I have tears streaming down my cheeks,” said Andrew MacRae, one of Mr. Reed’s lawyers, after learning of the parole board recommendation.
Mr. Reed’s case has generated intense interest in recent weeks, with a rare confluence of Republican lawmakers and high-profile celebrities, including Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna, calling on courts and the governor to spare his life. He had been scheduled to die on Wednesday.
By granting the indefinite stay and sending the case back to a trial court, the Texas appeals court — the highest criminal court in the state — provided Mr. Reed’s defense team a sweeping victory.
“At every turn we have asked for a hearing at which we can present the evidence, in full, of Rodney Reed’s innocence,” said Bryce Benjet, one of Mr. Reed’s lawyers. “So it is extremely rewarding that we can finally have a chance to fully present his case in court, so it can be determined that he did not commit this crime.”
Mr. Benjet added that he had just spoken to Mr. Reed’s mother. “She was both relieved and elated,” he said.
Mr. Reed was convicted of the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas. Ms. Stites, 19, was strangled, and her body was dumped alongside a rural road. Prosecutors said she had also been raped, and Mr. Reed was arrested based mostly on DNA tests.
He maintained that he and Ms. Stites had been having an affair, which would explain how his DNA was recovered from her body.
Mr. Reed’s lawyers have argued previously that the state’s forensic investigators made critical errors regarding the timeline of the killing, which some investigators later admitted in affidavits.
Most recently, at least three people have come forward with new testimony regarding Ms. Stites’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell. Mr. Fennell is a former police officer who was released from prison in 2018; he pleaded guilty in 2008 to kidnapping a woman he had encountered while on duty. The woman said he had also raped her.
A man who served time in prison with Mr. Fennell said in a sworn affidavit last month that he had heard Mr. Fennell confess to killing Ms. Stites because she had cheated on him with a black man. Mr. Reed is black.
Mr. Fennell’s lawyer, Robert M. Phillips, said that Mr. Fennell denies killing Ms. Stites.
It was unclear whether Friday’s ruling would lead to a resolution of one of the most contentious issues in the case: Mr. Reed’s lawyers have pushed for the murder weapon — Ms. Stites’s belt — to be tested for DNA evidence, which has yet to happen.
Mr. MacRae said he expected that an evidentiary hearing would take place in another four to six months, in which the new witnesses would testify and other evidence would be examined in court. He said it was possible that Mr. Reed’s defense team would also subpoena Mr. Fennell.
Other witnesses could still come forward, Mr. MacRae added. “It’s still an open investigation,” he said.
What made the Reed case unique was the widespread support he received from Republican elected officials, many of whom had in the past avoided speaking out publicly about the guilt or innocence of death row inmates and who have been staunch supporters of the death penalty.
Senator Ted Cruz was one of several Texas Republican leaders who called on Mr. Abbott and the state parole board to stop the execution and grant Mr. Reed a reprieve so that the new evidence could be examined. The list included the Republican congressman who represents Bastrop, where the crime took place.
Eight Republican and eight Democratic state senators sent a letter supporting a reprieve to Mr. Abbott and the board. The letter referred to the decision in 1998 by George W. Bush, the governor at the time, to commute the death sentence of Henry Lee Lucas.
“One thing we often grapple with when discussing criminal justice reform is balancing justice with mercy, particularly when we consider a heinous crime,” the letter read. “Executing Rodney Reed without certainty about his guilt erodes public trust — not only in capital punishment, but in Texas justice itself.”
State Representative Matt Krause, Republican of Fort Worth, said on Friday that the court’s action was a best-case scenario because it will provide an opportunity to review the new evidence.
“I want to make sure that anytime the state does use that ultimate final punishment,” said Mr. Krause, who supports the death penalty, “that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that was the person who committed the crime.”
Texas runs the nation’s busiest death chamber. Since December 1982, when the state resumed carrying out capital punishment after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Texas has executed 566 men and women, more than any other state.
In February 2018, Governor Abbott took his only action during nearly five years in office to block a death sentence, granting clemency to Thomas Whitaker, who had been sentenced to death for orchestrating the killing of his brother and mother. Mr. Whitaker’s father, a survivor of the murders, had asked the governor to spare his son’s life. Mr. Abbott commuted Mr. Whitaker’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole, after a unanimous recommendation from the state parole board.
That was the only other time, until Friday, that the parole board had recommended Mr. Abbott take action to delay or stop an execution.
Manny Fernandez reported from Houston, and Richard A. Oppel Jr. from New York.