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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – New reviews of forensic evidence support a Texas death row inmate’s long-held claims that he didn’t kill a 19-year-old woman nearly two decades ago, said attorneys for the man who faces execution next month.
Rodney Reed, 47, is set to die March 5 for the 1996 rape and strangulation of Stacey Stites, a grocery store worker from Central Texas. Her body was found in brush off the side of a road in Bastrop County after she didn’t show up at her job.
An 83-page appeal filed Thursday with the trial court in Bastrop County and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals says the original medical examiner has changed his opinion on when Stites died and three other coroners who have reviewed the evidence also dispute the original finding on her time of death. They believe she was killed elsewhere and her body moved to the spot where it was found, according to Reed’s attorneys.
Last November, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a lower court ruling that rejected claims Reed’s trial attorneys were deficient. State attorneys said then that 11 state and five federal judges already had rejected Reed’s claim of innocence.
Stites went missing less than three weeks before she planned to marry Jimmy Fennell Jr., a police officer in nearby Giddings.
In the most recent appeal, Reed’s lawyers also renewed arguments that Fennell was responsible for Stites’ death. Fennell is now in prison after pleading guilty to improper sexual contact with a person in his custody.
Jurors who convicted Reed were told Stites was killed after 3 a.m., when she was on her way to work an early shift. The new forensic reviews show she was killed hours before that and the sexual contact was hours earlier, according to the appeal.
“It is medically and scientifically impossible for Mr. Reed to have committed the crime,” said lawyer Bryce Benjet from the New York-based Innocence Project and Austin attorney Andrew MacRea in the appeal.
Reed was arrested almost a year after the slaying when his DNA surfaced in the investigation of an unrelated sexual assault case. It matched genetic evidence from Stites’ body.
He told investigators he didn’t know her, then acknowledged he kept their relationship a secret from police because he didn’t want to be considered a suspect in her death.
Reed said they’d been in a romantic relationship for several months and their sex was consensual. The appeal filed Thursday included affidavits from two people who attorneys say can confirm the relationship.
No other trial evidence linked Reed to Stites’ death.
Reed was acquitted of sexual assault in a 1987 case in which he said the woman consented.
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