The state's highest criminal court Friday evening blocked next week’s planned execution of Rodney Reed, returning his case to the trial court to consider new evidence that defense lawyers argue establishes the Bastrop man’s innocence.
The Court of Criminal Appeals order came hours after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to recommend that Gov. Greg Abbott delay, for 120 days, Wednesday’s scheduled execution for Rodney Reed of Bastrop.
The board declined to support Reed’s request to commute his death sentence to a life term in prison.
Abbott could have accepted or rejected the seven-member board’s recommendation, but Friday’s stay of execution took the matter out of his hands.
The only other time Abbott faced a clemency recommendation from the parole board, he waited until less than an hour before Thomas Whitaker was to be executed to step in and commute his sentence to life in prison without parole. At the time, Abbott cited unanimous support from the parole board as one of the factors that swayed his decision to spare Whitaker’s life.
A 120-day reprieve, if granted, would have merely delay Reed’s execution while keeping his death sentence in place.
In the past month, state politicians from both major parties and a growing list of celebrities — joined by more than 3.5 million people who signed two online petitions on Reed’s behalf — have pressed the parole board and Abbott to spare Reed’s life, arguing that it would be a travesty to proceed with an execution in light of new evidence.
Reed’s clemency petition included analyses from forensic experts who said Stacey Stites, a 19-year-old whose body was discovered along a rural road in Bastrop County in 1996, had been killed hours before she could have encountered Reed — but at a time when she was with fiance Jimmy Fennell in the apartment they shared in Giddings. Other witnesses have submitted sworn statements supporting Reed’s claim that he and Stites were having an affair, explaining the presence of his semen in her body, and portraying Fennell as a racist who expressed anger that Stites was sleeping with a black man and, according to one affidavit, admitted to killing her. Reed is African American. Fennell, like Stites, is white.
Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro of Texas called on Abbott to halt Reed's execution immediately, saying "mounting evidence suggests an innocent man may be heading to execution." Beto O'Rourke, who left the Democratic race two weeks ago, urged his Twitter followers to call Abbott on Reed's behalf.
But former state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, a Republican from Irving, criticized the parole board's decision, saying it will encourage inmates to “get politicians to react to a bunch of amped up people on Twitter."
"This is all setting the stage for future capital murders to be litigated on social media," Rinaldi said in a tweet.
Reed’s lawyers still have two court actions pending:
• A lawsuit asks U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin to order DNA testing on the belt used to strangle Stites and on other crime scene evidence that was likely touched by the killer but has not yet been tested.
• The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to weigh Reed’s claim of innocence. The court considered Reed’ case during Friday’s private conference and is expected to announce its decision Monday morning.