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On The Front Lines

Supreme Court to Determine Timeline for Post-Conviction DNA Testing in Death Row Case Rife with Racial Bias & Prosecutorial Misconduct

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A legal coalition is weighing in on a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that throws into stark relief the racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct and systemic injustice at the core of Texas’ death penalty system. In filing an amicus brief in Reed v. Goertz, The Rutherford Institute, Cato Institute, ACLU, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to allow DNA testing of evidence in a murder case that could exonerate a black death row inmate while implicating a white police officer for the murder of his own fiancé. In agreeing to hear the case, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide when prisoners can pursue post-conviction claims for DNA testing of crime scene evidence.

“Chronic injustice has turned the American dream into a nightmare. On paper, you may be innocent until proven guilty, but in actuality, you’ve already been tried, found guilty and convicted by police officers, prosecutors and judges long before you ever appear in a courtroom,” 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 system is riddled with corruption, abuse and an appalling disregard for the rights of the citizenry.”

Nearly two years after the 1996 rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites, Rodney Reed, a black man who claimed to have had a consensual affair with Stites, who was white, was charged with her murder. Although Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a white police officer, was considered the prime suspect following her murder, an all-white jury convicted Reed of the murder and sentenced him to death. While no DNA evidence linked Reed to the scene of the crime or any other element of the murder, the jury based its decision on a small amount of semen 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, the victim’s relationship with her fiancé was tumultuous and seemingly violent; fellow police officers claim that Fennell gave conflicting accounts of his whereabouts at the time of Stites’ murder than what he testified to at trial and said along the lines of “You got what you deserved” to the victim’s body at her funeral; and an inmate with whom Fennell had served time said in a sworn affidavit that he heard Fennell confess to killing Stites because she had cheated on him with a black man. Fennell served ten years in prison for kidnapping and raping a woman he had encountered while on duty.

The Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas halted Reed’s execution in 2019 and ordered the court where he was originally tried to consider new evidence in the case. However, prosecutors opposed Reed’s efforts to have DNA testing carried out on several items discovered at the crime-scene, and the state trial and appellate courts also denied Reed’s request. Federal courts subsequently dismissed Reed’s claims as untimely. In agreeing to hear the case, the U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether the statute of limitations for post-conviction claims for DNA testing starts after a state trial court denies testing or after litigation, including appeals, ends.

Sean M. SeLegue and Liam E. O’Connor of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP advanced the arguments in the brief.

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.

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