On The Front Lines
Recognizing the Need to Protect Due Process Rights, Supreme Court Gives Green Light to Lawsuit for Post-Conviction DNA Testing in Death Row Case
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the need to protect due process rights as it relates to post-conviction DNA testing of crime scene evidence.
Weighing in before the Court in Reed v. Goertz, a case that raises concerns of racial bias and systemic injustice in Texas’ death penalty system, a legal coalition made up of The Rutherford Institute, Cato Institute, ACLU, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had argued that the statute of limitations for post-conviction procedural due process claims for DNA testing should not start until after all state court litigation, including appeals, has ended.
“There is nothing moral or just about how the death penalty is implemented in America,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “At every step along the way, whether it’s encounters with the police, dealings with prosecutors, hearings in court before judges and juries, or jail terms in one of the nation’s many prisons, the nation’s capital punishment system is riddled with racial prejudice, economic inequality, corruption, abuse and an appalling disregard for the rights of the citizenry.”
Nearly two years after the 1996 murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites, who was white, Rodney Reed, a black man who claimed to have had a consensual affair with Stites, was convicted for her murder. Although Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a white police officer, appears to have been a prime suspect initially following her murder, an all-white jury convicted Reed of the murder and sentenced him to death. The jury based its decision on Reed’s semen being found in Stites’ body and a timeline that has since been refuted by forensic experts. Several people have since come forward to cast doubt on Reed’s guilt and Fennell’s claims of innocence. For instance, unknown to Reed and the jury at the time of his trial, reports indicated that the victim’s relationship with her fiancé was tumultuous and seemingly violent; fellow police officers claim that Fennell gave a conflicting account of his whereabouts around the time of Stites’ murder than what he testified to at trial and made a comment along the lines of “You got what you deserved” to Stites’ body at her funeral; and an inmate with whom Fennell had served time said that he heard Fennell confess to killing Stites because she had cheated on him with a black man. Fennell was later sentenced to ten years in prison for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman he had encountered while on police duty.
The Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas halted Reed’s execution in 2019 and ordered the lower court to further consider the case. However, prosecutors opposed efforts to have DNA testing carried out on items discovered at the crime-scene, and the state trial and appellate courts also denied the request. Reed then challenged the denial of his request for DNA testing in federal court, but his claims were dismissed as untimely. In filing an amicus before the Supreme Court, the legal coalition that includes The Rutherford Institute argued that the earlier filing timeline failed to provide fair notice. In allowing Reed’s claims to go forward, the Supreme Court noted that the effect of the lower courts’ rulings would “run counter to core principles of federalism, comity, consistency, and judicial economy.”
Sean M. SeLegue and Liam E. O’Connor of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP helped advance the arguments in the legal coalition’s amicus brief in Reed v. Goertz.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.