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Rodney Reed on Texas death row in September 2019.
Rodney Reed on Texas death row in September 2019.
Photo courtesy of Tiffany McMillan.

An Innocent Man May Die Because of Illogical Deadlines

by Molly Greene

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case this term that will impact whether the state of Texas executes Rodney Reed for capital murder—even though it appears another man has confessed to committing the crime. But the case is not about Reed’s innocence. It’s a case about whether Reed filed his legal claims in time. Lauren Gill first covered Rodney Reed’s efforts to prove his innocence for The Appeal in September 2019 and his efforts have since gained national attention.

In 1997, the then-30-year-old Reed was charged with killing 19-year-old Stacey Stites, after Stites’ body was discovered in bushes in Bastrop, Texas. Reed, a Black man, has always maintained his innocence but was convicted in 1998 by an all-white jury and later sentenced to death. Medical examiners stated that Stites had been sexually assaulted prior to her death and found a small amount of semen that linked Reed to the woman. The defense produced evidence that Stites—who was engaged to another man—and Reed had secretly been dating and argued that the presence of DNA was due to consensual sex. But the jury clung to the prosecution’s assertion that the idea of a romance between the pair was “ludicrous” and “preposterous.”

In the years since, Stites’ then-fiance appears to have confessed to the crime. Stites’ was engaged at the time to local police officer Jimmy Fennell, who was later incarcerated for kidnapping and allegedly raping a woman while on duty as a police officer in 2007. While in prison, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood stated in a sworn affidavit that Fennell said he’d murdered Stites for her affair with Reed. “I had to kill my n*****-loving fiancé,” Fennell said, according to Snow’s sworn statement.

Reed repeatedly sought post-conviction relief in Texas state courts and in 2014 requested DNA testing of crime scene evidence, including the belt used to kill Stites, a name tag, a shirt, and two beer cans. The trial court denied his request. Reed appealed in 2017, but the state appellate court affirmed the lower court’s opinion. Later that year, the state court denied his requests for rehearing. In 2019, Reed filed a claim in federal court asserting that the state law’s procedures for DNA testing are unconstitutionally inadequate.

These dates are important because the question presented to the Supreme Court in Reed’s case is not actually about DNA testing or innocence, but about timing. The law at the center of this case, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, lets defendants seek redress in federal court when their rights have been deprived by a state or local government official. When Texas state courts denied Reed his request for DNA testing, Reed filed a claim in federal court on the grounds that his right to due process was violated. But both the federal U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Reed waited too long to file his claim.

Section 1983 claims are subject to a state’s personal injury statute of limitations, which is two years in Texas. But federal appeals courts don’t agree on when the clock starts running. On the one hand, the Fifth Circuit determined that Reed’s countdown started when the trial court first denied his request for DNA testing in 2014 and had thus run down by the time he filed his request in federal court in 2019. On the other hand, the Eleventh Circuit determined that the clock doesn’t start until all state court action has completed, which would have been in November 2017. The Supreme Court will now settle the question.

If the Supreme Court makes it harder to file Section 1983 claims, the decision will disproportionately impact Black defendants on death row. According to a new report by the National Registry of Exonerations, “fifty-five percent of all defendants exonerated for murder are Black people (628/1,167), who make up 13.6% of the population of the United States.”

Starting the countdown early makes no sense, since, generally, federal courts—where Section 1983 claims are filed—will not consider state cases until all state courts have weighed in on a matter. Because state appellate cases often take years, filing a federal claim at the same time as a state appellate claim is illogical; it would be like ordering a package and trying to return it before it arrived. That’s what the Fifth Circuit has ruled about Reed’s Section 1983 claim—he should’ve brought it before he knew whether he would need to file in federal court.

There are three possible outcomes of this case, but only one of them helps Reed:

  1. Outcome one: the Supreme Court sides with the Fifth Circuit and agrees that the clock started running in 2016, when the state trial court denied Reed’s request for DNA testing, making Reed’s 2019 federal claim too late.
  2. Outcome two: the Court says the clock started running in October 2017, once the state appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision, making Reed’s November 2019 claim still be too late.
  3. Outcome three: the Court determines that the clock started running when the state appellate court denied Reed’s request for a rehearing in November 2017, which is when Reed fully exhausted his options for relief in state courts. Only then would Reed’s November 2019 federal claim have been filed in time.

If the Court splits the difference and goes with outcome two, it will leave a larger window for a lot of defendants seeking post-conviction relief. But Rodney Reed will be out of options.

If the court rules that Reed’s claim was not filed in time (outcome one or two), no evidence will be subject to DNA testing, including the belt used to strangle Stites. The potential confession by Fennell won’t matter. And Reed will be executed by the state of Texas.

For anyone looking to understand how convoluted the criminal legal system is, look no further than this case. In determining whether a man should die, the system will prioritize nine people’s opinions about the interpretation of a law about timekeeping over a violent and racist man saying, “I had to kill my n*****-loving fiance.”


In the news


Sunday was National Wrongful Conviction Day. Since 1989, there have been more than 3,200 known wrongful convictions. [National Registry of Exonerations] From The Appeal: Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg has reported on how Shaken Baby Syndrome, which one judge called “akin to junk science,” has led to a number of wrongful convictions.

Appeal alum and Bolts editor-in-chief Daniel Nichanian breaks down what criminal justice bills California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed—one that would place limits on solitary confinement—and what he signed—a bill to decriminalize jaywalking. [Daniel Nichanian / Twitter] From The Appeal: Last month, Nneka Ewulonu wrote that jaywalking is just one example of “America’s long history of criminalizing public spaces and our existence in them.”

The internet largely did not exist for Lyle C. May and others incarcerated in North Carolina prisons until 2020 when tablets were first distributed there. But that hasn’t meant access to information for free. “The advent of new technology in prison doesn’t just allow for increased communication—it presents the state with new opportunities to make a buck,” he writes. [Lyle C. May / Scalawag]

Police have killed at least 889 people so far this year. Police have killed more people in the past nine months than they have at any other point in the past decade, according to Samuel Sinyangwe, an activist and data scientist who runs the Mapping Police Violence database. [Samuel Sinyangwe / Mapping Police Violence]

Los Angeles police officer Houston Tipping, who was killed by other officers during a training exercise in May, had been investigating four LAPD officers for committing a gang rape when he was killed, according to Tipping’s family attorney, Bradley Gage. One of the four officers who is accused of participating in the gang rape was present when Tipping was beaten to death by his fellow officers. [Kylie Cheung / Jezebel]

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, please donate here.

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