Dixieland Justice: the Slow Murder of Rodney Reed

News & Politics

Precisely a decade ago last Sunday morning, on April 23, just before the sun had come up, someone dumped the strangled body of Stacey Stites, a 20-year-old grocer, off the side of a dusty highway in the sleepy Texas town of Bastrop.

Although Rodney Reed has spent nearly the last eight years living a caged existence, subject to a determination by state courts that he shall die for Stites' murder, last month he returned to district court for a new hearing.

The results of Reed's return to the Bastrop County Courthouse very well may highlight the extreme consequences of interracial dating among young people in the South, even half a century after the end of state-mandated racial segregation.

In a rare move last October, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that that prosecutor's improper conduct, as alleged by Reed's lawyers, met legal requirements necessary to send the case back to trial court in Bastrop. There they could explore whether the state's lawyers hid evidence from the court that suggested Reed's innocence. To the disappointment of Reed's supporters, the individual who will soon decide if flaws in the previous trial merit a new trial, Judge Reva Townslee-Corbett, happens to be the daughter of the judge who presided over the trial in question.

But that's certainly not the only thing working against Reed and his chances at survival. As his case unveils, the menacing legacy of Jim Crow justice may remain alive and well today, imbedded deep in the heart of Texas.

In describing Bastrop's historical significance, Preserve America -- a White House-led initiative to recognize national heritage sites -- lists before all else that the community is "the second Anglo town established in Texas." For a black man in the (albeit post-apartheid) Deep South to pursue a furtive sexual relationship with the white fiancé of a white local cop may still prove to carry fatal consequences; Reed's fate will soon tell.

The state's case against Reed hinges solely on DNA evidence found that linked him to Stite's body. Accordingly, Reed's court-appointed attorneys promised jurors -- during their opening statement -- to reveal proof of Reed and Stites' affair and a reasonable explanation for findings of his sperm during her autopsy.

But despite court documents indicating that 11 different individuals had witnessed the affair, either by mention during the trial or by affidavit, the attorneys called just two witnesses. In so doing, they utterly failed to convince the jury of Reed and Stites' covert relationship, thereby offering no justification for the only piece of evidence connecting Reed to the crime.

They also failed to call Reed's cousin and co-worker Chris Aldridge, as well as the realtor overseeing Aldridge and Reed's remodeling work -- both of whom could provide an alibi for Reed that morning.

But perhaps the most shocking evidence never presented to the court also implicates someone other than Reed -- Stites' husband-to-be, a police officer in the neighboring town of Giddings, Jimmy Fennell.

The allegedly suppressed evidence presented in the new hearing

New information presented to the Bastrop court last month included testimony from Martha Barnett, who worked in the same shopping center as Stites. Barnett said she spotted Stites and Fennell in the predawn hours on the day of her murder; they were arguing in a convenience store parking lot, she told the court. In January 1998, Barnett reported the sighting to former Lee County Attorney Steven Keng and asked that he share the information with then District Attorney Charles Penick, the prosecutor in Reed's case.

Keng not only testified in court that Penick ignored the information and did not pass it along to Reed's attorneys, he also fingered Fennell as his best guess of Stites' murderer during an interview in the award-winning documentary "State vs. Reed." Keng, a former prosecutor in Giddings (again, where Fennell worked as a police officer), stated in the documentary, "My personal opinion when I heard that she had been killed was that Fennell had done it, immediately. And I know a number of people around here that felt the same way because they had observed enough about his personality that when we heard she was having an affair with a black guy it was, like, well that's why he did it."

Dallas police sergeant Mary Blackwell also testified that she overheard an alarming statement from Fennell during an officer training course in 1995. "He said that if he ever found out that his girlfriend was cheating on him that he'd strangle her," Blackwell testified. When she learned in 1998 that Stites had been murdered with a belt -- the exact way that Fennell had then bragged that he would do it -- she relayed her story to investigator John Vasquez, who worked for Reed's defense team.

Although Vasquez testified last month that he shared Blackwell's account with Assistant District Attorney Forrest Sanderson, but strangely not Reed's own defense team (instead saying he assumed that they would be subsequently informed of her story by the state's lawyers), Sanderson testified that Vasquez never told him.

Coverup of a more likely suspect

For whatever reason that these testimonies were originally excluded from trial, even more evidence pointing to a possible coverup of Fennell's involvement in Stites' murder abounds. For a short while, Fennell was a primary suspect and for a good reason: He failed two separate polygraph tests when asked whether he had strangled his fiancé.

However, investigators failed to search Stites' and Fennell's apartment -- the last place she was allegedly seen alive, a notably bizarre detour from standard investigative procedure. Additionally, Fennell's truck, which investigators claim was used to dump Stites' body, was returned to him before investigators completed their forensic analysis. The very day after Stites' murder, according to financial records obtained by independent investigator David Fisher, Fennell sold the truck to a Chevrolet dealer in Giddings.

Before the truck was returned to Fennell, however, investigators identified two sets of fingerprints inside the vehicle: Stites' and Fennells'. But if Reed was somehow able to erase only his own prints -- while miraculously leaving Stites' and Fennells' neatly intact and even clip Stites' fingernails (which were found cut almost to the quick, likely to avoid transmission of evidence) -- it seems strange that he would neglect to wear a condom while allegedly raping her.

In an even more curious and tragic twist, Bastrop Detective Ed Salmela, who was originally assigned as lead investigator of Stites' murder, wound up dead just three months after taking on her case. Although officials claimed his gunshot wounds were self-inflicted, Scott Salmela, the detective's brother, indicates in "State vs. Reed" that he remains flatly unconvinced, "I believe my brother got into something and found out way too much and ended up not being in this world anymore I believe he had some information that was incriminating to maybe some other officers that actually led to his death [I]f it's found out that somebody else killed Stacey Stites, they'll find out, in my mind, who killed my brother."

Interestingly, the lead investigator into Detective Salmela's death -- Rocky Wardlow of the Texas Rangers, a state law enforcement agency -- was the same person who, after Salmela's death, inexplicably dropped Jimmy Fennell's name from the list of suspects in Stites' murder.

On March 25, the day after the new hearings, dozens of out-of-towners -- primarily young activists from neighboring Austin -- converged in Bastrop. There they joined Reed's family in clamoring through Bastrop's placid neighborhood streets, chanting messages of Reed's innocence to onlookers.

Ten years have passed since Stacey Stites' vicious asphyxiation, a barbaric act that sent her to an early grave -- wearing, of all things, her wedding dress. In the coming weeks we may see if Dixieland Justice will force Rodney Reed to join her.

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