Expert Witnesses Admit Error in Case of Man Who Has Served 22 Years on Texas’ Death Row, Prompting New Appeal

(What follows is a June press release from Rodney’s legal team)

Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Lab Director And Other Experts Acknowledge Error in Testimony at Rodney Reed’s Capital Murder Trial 

Contact: Paul Cates, (212) 364-5346, pcates@innocenceproject.org

(June 27, 2018 – Bastrop, TX) Lawyers for death row inmate Rodney Reed late yesterday filed an Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus before a Texas court today containing candid admissions of error from the expert witnesses who were called by the state at Reed’s 1998 Bastrop County trial for the murder of Stacey Stites. Attached to the Application are letters and affidavits from the state’s three key expert witnesses admitting errors in the testimony which led to Reed’s conviction and sentence of death. This now-recanted expert testimony provided a crucial link between Reed’s DNA and the murder and was used to refute Reed’s long-maintained insistence that he is innocent of the crime but was involved in a consensual sexual relationship with Stites.

The papers filed today show:

  • Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Lab Director Brady Mills has acknowledged “limitations” in Department of Public Safety Serologist Karen Blakely’s testimony at Reed’s trial. Citing a scientific study, Blakely testified that finding Reed’s intact spermatozoa meant that the sperm could not have been left more than 26 hours before her examination. This opinion essentially ruled out Reed’s defense that he and Stites had consensual sex in the days before her murder. (The state argued that since Stites’ whereabouts were accounted for most of the day before the murder, the only possible explanation for Reed’s sperm being in the victim’s body was that he had raped before her murder.) Crime Lab Director Brady Mills now admits that Blakely misstated the science and that the paper she cited actually confirms that Reed’s intact sperm could have been found up to 3 days after intercourse.
  • LabCorp Technical Leader Stephanie Sivak has issued a report finding errors in the testimony of retained state’s expert, LabCorp serologist Meghan Clement. Clement testified at Reed’s trial that in her experience of over 10 years examining thousands of rape kits, she had never seen intact spermatozoa more than 24 hours old. LabCorp Technical Leader Sivak now admits that this testimony was in error and that Clement should not have bolstered her erroneous opinion by referencing her experience. In a separate affidavit, another LabCorp serologist, Purnima Bokka, M.S., states that studies have found intact spermatazoa on vaginal swabs taken 72-144 hours after intercourse—more than three times as long as Clement testified at Mr. Reed’s trial.
  • Former Travis County Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo, M.D., has also recanted much of his testimony that was used to implicate Reed at his 1998 trial. Although Bayardo testified that Reed’s semen was left “quite recently,” he has now changed his opinion. In a sworn declaration, Bayardo states that his finding “very few” sperm indicated that Reed and Stites had sex “not less than 24 hours before Ms. Stites’s death.” Dr. Bayardo has also more generally recanted any opinion he offered which linked Mr. Reed to a sexual assault and murder of Ms. Stites.

These new admissions of error by the State’s own experts come on the tails of a lengthy hearing conducted last fall that focused on inconsistent statements made by Stites’s fiancé, Jimmy Fennell.

Fennell, who was recently released after serving a 10 year prison term for a sex crime, told his best friend in 1996 that he had been out drinking on the night Stites’s was murdered. However, he testified at Reed’s trial that he and Stites spent a quiet evening at home. When called to explain this discrepancy at the October 2017 hearing, Fennell refused to testify, asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Renown forensic pathologist Michael Baden, M.D. also testified at the hearing last fall that the condition of Stites’s body rendered the state’s theory of Reed’s guilt impossible. Where the state argued Stites was killed between 3-5 a.m. on April 23, 1996, the evidence showed that Stites was actually killed before midnight on April 22nd, during the time Fennell testified he was with Stites in their apartment. Baden’s testimony was corroborated by two other leading experts and uncontradicted by the state.

This new Application will be considered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and could result in the case being remanded for another hearing in the Bastrop District Court. Reed is represented by Innocent Project Senior Staff Attorney Bryce Benjet; Morris Overstreet of Prairie View, Texas; Andrew MacRae of Levatino Pace PLLC; and Michelle Davis of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, and Flom, LLP. Morris Overstreet is a retired judge and prosecutor who previously served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

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