Supreme Court clears way for Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed to try to use DNA to prove innocence

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The Supreme Court cleared the way on Wednesday for Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed to seek post-conviction DNA evidence to try to prove his innocence.

Reed claims an all-White jury wrongly convicted him of killing of Stacey Stites, a 19-year-old White woman, in Texas in 1998.

Texas had argued that he had waited too long to bring his challenge to the state’s DNA procedures in federal court, but the Supreme Court disagreed. Now, he can go to a federal court to make his claim.

The ruling was 6-3. Justice Brett Kavanaugh delivered the opinion of the court and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Since Reed’s conviction, Texas courts had rejected his various appeals. Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Rihanna have expressed support, signing a petition asking the state to halt his eventual execution.

The case puts a new focus on the testing of DNA crime-scene evidence and when an inmate can make a claim to access the technology in a plea of innocence. To date, 375 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 21 who served time on death row, according to the Innocence Project, a group that represents Reed and other clients seeking post-conviction DNA testing to prove their innocence.

Kavanaugh, in his opinion Wednesday, said that the court agreed to hear the case because federal appeals courts have disagreed about when inmates can make such claims without running afoul of the statute of limitations. Kavanaugh said Reed could make the claim after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately denied his request for rehearing, rejecting an earlier date set out by the appeals court.

“Significant systemic benefits ensue from starting the statute of limitations clock when the state litigation in DNA testing cases like Reed’s has concluded,” Kavanaugh said.

He noted that if any problems with a defendant’s right to due process “lurk in the DNA testing law” the case can proceed through the appellate process, which could ultimately render a federal lawsuit unnecessary.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

Alito, joined by Gorsuch in his dissent, said Reed should have acted more quickly to bring his appeal. “Instead,” Alito wrote, “he waited until an execution date was set.”

Alito charged Reed with making the “basic mistake of missing a statute of limitations.”

Reed has been on death row for the murder of Stites.

A passerby found Stites’ body near a shirt and a torn piece of belt. Investigators targeted Reed because his sperm was found inside her. Reed acknowledged the two were having an affair, but says that her fiancé, a local police officer named Jimmy Fennell, was the last to see her alive.

Reed claims that over the last two decades he has discovered a “considerable body of evidence” demonstrating his innocence. Reed claims that the DNA testing would point to Fennell as the murder suspect. Fennell was later jailed for sexually assaulting a woman in his custody and Reed claims that numerous witnesses said he had threatened to strangle Stites with a belt if he ever caught her cheating on him. Reed seeks to test the belt found at the scene that was used to strangle Stites.

The Texas law at issue allows a convicted person to obtain post-conviction DNA testing of biological material if the court finds that certain conditions are met. Reed was denied. He came to the Supreme Court in 2018 and was denied again. Now he is challenging the constitutionality of the Texas law arguing that the denial of the DNA testing violates his due process rights. 

But the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals held that he waited too long to bring the claim. “An injury accrues when a plaintiff first becomes aware, or should have become aware, that his right had been violated.” The court said that he became aware of that in 2014 and that his current claim is “time barred.” 

Reed’s lawyers argued that he could only bring the claim once the state appeals court had ruled, at the end of state court litigation. In court, Parker Rider-Longmaid said that the “clock doesn’t start ticking” until state court proceedings come to an end. He said Texas’ reading of the law would mean that other procedures in the appellate process are “irrelevant.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.


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