People Magazine Investigates is examining a controversial case from Bastrop, Texas, which involved the abduction, rape, and murder of Stacey Stites, a young woman who was attacked while on her way to work in 1996.
Two years later, Rodney Reed was convicted of those crimes and was placed on death row; however, many believe that the police may have been affected by racial prejudice and may have imprisoned an innocent man.
On April 23, 1996, the 19-year-old Stacey Stites left her fiance, Jimmy Fennell, at their home in Giddings, Texas, to go to work at a grocery store at 3 am. A few hours later, the store contacted Stacey’s family to say she hadn’t arrived at work.
Stacey had been driving Fennell’s truck, which was found in the parking lot of a Bastrop high school. The cops found evidence of a struggle at the truck but no sign of Stacey herself.
Later that afternoon, her remains were discovered that afternoon dumped along a rural road in a secluded part of Bastrop County. The police determined that she’d been raped and strangled to death.
The detectives first focused their attention on fiance and local police officer Jimmy Fennell. Stacey and Fennell were living together and were all set to be married; however, some of Stacey’s friends suggested that her future husband could be possessive and controlling. It’s thought that they may have begun arguing recently.
However, Fennell was ultimately dismissed as a suspect due, mainly, to geography. He was in Giddings when he was contacted about Stacey’s disappearance, approximately 30 miles from Bastrop. The cops didn’t think he could have made it back on time.
Police focus shifted to Rodney Reed six weeks after murder
Rodney Reed first came under the investigator’s radar about six months after Stacey’s murder when he attempted to abduct another young woman, Linda Schlueter. At the time, Reed had been released, but an officer decided to investigate if he had a connection with the Stites case.
The cops had a sample of Reed’s DNA, and when they compared it to DNA recovered from Stacey’s remains, they found it to be a match. Reed at first denied having any involvement or of knowing Stacey; however, when confronted with the DNA, he claimed they had had a secret but consensual affair.
Reed was charged with abduction, rape, and murder, serious charges which made the crime a capital offense. In 1998, he was convicted of capital murder and was sentenced to death.
Reed has long maintained his innocence, and since his imprisonment, a campaign supporting a retrial or a release of Reed has gathered momentum. Critics of the conviction have suggested that the case was wrought with racial tension and prejudice. The jury was 100% white.
In 2007, Fennell was accused of rape by a woman he detained while working as a police officer in Georgetown, Texas. He pleaded guilty to kidnapping and sexual impropriety. And while serving a prison sentence for the crime, according to Time, he reportedly confessed to killing Stacey.
Reed’s attorneys have long argued that DNA samples should have been taken from the belt that was used to strangle Stacey. However, prosecutors argue that evidence taken from the belt would now be unreliable due to the length of time passed.
The campaign to re-examine the case a drawn interest and support from various celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna, and Beyonce. And 26 of Texas’ bi-partisan lawmakers signed a petition urging Governor Greg Abbott to order a stay of execution.
In November 2019, Reed was given a stay of execution, and a court ruled that a new hearing should re-examine the evidence. This hearing is set to take place in 2021.
More from People Magazine Investigates
Follow the links to read about more crimes profiled on People Magazine Investigates.
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People Magazine Investigates airs at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery.