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Reed v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas

April 12, 2017

RODNEY REED, Appellant


          Keasler, J., delivered the opinion of the Court in which Keller, P.J., and Hervey, Alcala, Richardson, Yeary, Keel, and Walker, JJ., joined. Newell, J., not participating.


          KEASLER, J.

         Rodney Reed sought post-conviction DNA testing of over forty items collected in the course of investigating Stacey Stites's sexual assault and murder. This investigation culminated in Reed's conviction and sentence of death for the capital murder of Stites. The trial judge denied the motion. Because Reed cannot establish that exculpatory DNA results would have resulted in his acquittal and his motion is not made for the purpose of unreasonable delay, we affirm the trial judge's denial.

         I. Background

         A. Trial

         Because we detailed the case's factual background elsewhere, [1] only the facts relevant to Reed's current DNA appeal are included in this opinion. Stacey Lee Stites's partially clothed body was found on the side of a back country road in Bastrop County on April 23, 1996. She was wearing only a black bra, underwear, undone blue jeans, socks, and a single tennis shoe, and her H.E.B. name tag was found in the crook of her knee. A white t-shirt, a piece of a brown woven belt without a buckle, and two beer cans were found nearby. Before Stites's murder, she was engaged to Jimmy Fennell, a Giddings police officer at the time, and the two shared Fennell's red pick-up truck. Stites worked the early-morning shift at H.E.B. and typically drove the truck to work. The truck was discovered in the Bastrop High School parking lot after Stites's disappearance. Among other things inside the truck, authorities found Stites's other shoe and broken pieces of a green plastic cup. Outside the truck, police found a piece of a brown woven belt with the buckle attached.

         Department of Public Safety (DPS) crime scene investigators Karen Blakley, Wilson Young, and Terry Sandifer processed Stites's body, the truck, and the scene where Stites was found. Blakley testified at trial that the murder weapon was the belt "[b]ecause it matched the pattern that was on [Stites's] neck." Blakley also concluded that the two belt pieces matched and were torn, not cut. Because Stites was found partially clothed and with her pants ripped open, Blakley presumed a sexual assault preceded the murder. At the scene, Blakley further observed Stites's underwear was wet in the crotch and bunched around her hips, so she tested the crotch of the underwear for semen. Getting a positive result, Blakley collected DNA samples from Stites's vagina and breasts. Blakley did not collect samples from Stites's rectum because rigor mortis had already set in. Blakley also observed scratches on Stites's arms and abdomen, a cigarette burn on her arm, and what appeared to be fire ant bites on her wrists. To preserve any DNA evidence under her fingernails, DPS investigators put plastic bags over Stites's hands.

         Dr. Robert Bayardo, the Travis County Medical Examiner, conducted Stites's autopsy the day after her body was found. He determined that Stites died around 3:00 a.m. on April 23rd. He also concluded that the belt was the murder weapon and that Stites died of asphyxiation by strangulation. Like Blakley, Bayardo presumed Stites was sexually assaulted, took vaginal swabs, and found sperm with both heads and tails intact. He also took rectal swabs but found only sperm heads with no tails. He noted that her anus was dilated with superficial lacerations. Dr. Bayardo thought the presence of sperm in the anus was indicative of penile penetration, but noted that it may have been attributed to seepage from the vagina. He concluded that Stites's anal injuries occurred at or around the time of death and therefore were not acts of consensual sexual activity.

         When Young and Sandifer processed the truck for evidence, neither found fingerprints, blood, or semen identifying the perpetrator. However, they and Ranger L.T. Wardlow, the lead investigator on the case, noted the driver's seat position was reclined with the seatbelt fastened as if someone was pulled out of the seat while buckled in. Young, who stood six feet, two inches, also noticed that when he sat in the reclined driver's seat, he had a clear view out of the back window in the rearview mirror. Based on this, they concluded that someone who was six-foot-two or of similar height must have driven the truck.

         Five days after Stites's body was found, a citizen reported finding some items they believed were connected to Stites's murder. The report, written by Officer Scoggins, stated that the citizen reported that a part of a shirt, two condoms, and part of a knife handle were found. At trial, Ranger Wardlow testified that he did not have personal knowledge about who brought in the condoms. However, he testified that he saw the condoms a short while after they were brought in and confirmed that the condoms "appeared to be old and cracked and worn out." These items were not tested for DNA evidence before trial.

         Police investigated Stites's murder over the course of eleven months. During that time, police obtained twenty-eight biological samples from twenty-eight males. None of them matched the biological evidence found in and on Stites's body. After following several theories and lines of investigation-ruling out people Stites knew personally-police learned information about Reed that could make him a suspect. Reed was about the same height as Young, lived near the Bastrop High School, and frequently walked the area late at night. Police learned from DPS that Reed had an existing DNA sample on file and had DPS test it against the vaginal swabs taken by Blakley. Two different DNA tests of the samples concluded that Reed could not be excluded as a donor of the semen. Looking for more conclusive results, DPS forwarded the samples to LabCorp for additional testing. Again, the results could not exclude Reed and determined that the samples matched Reed's genetic profile. The LabCorp technician, as well as Blakley, testified that intact sperm did not live more than twenty-four hours after commission of a vaginal-sexual assault and sperm breaks down faster in the rectal area than in the vaginal vault.

         The jury found Reed guilty of capital murder and assessed a sentence of death.

         B. Post-Conviction Procedural History

         This case has an extensive post-conviction litigation history. After trial, Reed filed a direct appeal alleging insufficient evidence supporting his capital murder conviction which we denied based on the strength of the evidence presented at trial.[2] Our judgment relied on Reed's DNA found in and on Stites's body, expert testimony regarding how long sperm heads can survive in the vagina and anus, and expert testimony that the sexual assault occurred at or near the time of death.

         Before this Court affirmed the conviction, Reed filed an initial application for writ of habeas corpus under Code of Criminal Procedure Article 11.071. Reed also filed a supplemental claim while the initial writ was pending. We denied his initial application and characterized the supplemental claim as a subsequent application and dismissed it.[3] Reed filed a federal habeas application which was stayed and held in abeyance until Reed exhausted all available state remedies.[4] Then in March 2005, Reed filed another subsequent application that this Court ultimately denied in part and dismissed in part.[5] Between 2007 and 2009, Reed filed three more subsequent applications that were dismissed as abusive for failing to satisfy Article 11.071, § 5.[6]

         In August 2009, the federal court lifted the stay on Reed's federal writ application. In 2012, the federal district court judge denied Reed's application.[7] Reed then filed motions to alter and amend the court's judgment and for leave to amend his petition and abate the proceeding. He asked "the district court to reopen his case, vacate its prior judgment, grant him leave to add an additional due process claim, and abate all further proceedings until he exhausted the due process claim in state court."[8] The judge denied the motions. And in January 2014, the Fifth Circuit denied a certificate of appealability, essentially affirming the denial.[9]

         C. Reed's Request for Post-Conviction DNA Testing

         In April 2014, the State requested an execution date be set. At a hearing held in July 2014, the trial judge set the execution date for January 14, 2015. On the day of the hearing, Reed filed his Chapter 64 motion requesting DNA testing of a large number of items. In reviewing Reed's pleadings, we note that Reed has not clearly or consistently identified items he seeks to test. At times, items discussed in the body of a pleading are not reflected on an appended chart purporting to be a comprehensive itemized list of the extent of Reed's motion. Consistent with the State's objections at the live evidentiary hearing, we note that some items Reed evidently seeks to test were not specifically listed in Reed's Chapter 64 motion or addendum, yet were discussed by Reed's expert witnesses at the hearing.

         To group the items, we look to Reed's addendum to his latest proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law and follow, but do not adopt, Reed's categories dividing the items he seeks to have tested: (1) items recovered from Stites's body or her clothing, (2) items found in or near Fennell's truck, and (3) items found near the victim-recovery scene. Because the live hearing testimony covered additional items that do not neatly fall within Reed's categories, we add an "other" category. Out of an abundance of caution and because the trial judge entered findings and conclusions regarding all the pleaded and unpleaded items in denying DNA testing, we include them in this appeal.

          1. Items recovered from Stites's body or her clothing:

• Pants
• Underwear
• Bra
• H.E.B. name tag
• White t-shirt
• Section of belt (no buckle)
• Section of belt (with buckle)
• Earring
• Right shoe
• Left shoe
• H.E.B. employee shirt
• Strands of hair from left sock, back of left leg, and back
• White flakes
• Tape lifts from pubic area
• Vaginal and rectal swabs

         The State and Reed agreed to have the last three items listed tested outside of Chapter 64's parameters, and the judge entered an agreed order to that effect July 14, 2014. The record shows Reed abandoned his Chapter 64 testing request in regard to these items.

         2. In or near Fennell's truck:

• H.E.B pen
• Knife and metal cover
• Metal box cutter
• Pack of Big Red gum
• Piece of green plastic cup
• Brown planner/organizer
• Single hair from planner/organizer
• White paper napkin
• Carbon copies of checks
• Gas emergency book
• Latent fingerprint from passenger door
• Automatic teller receipt
• Bridal shop receipt
• Walmart receipt
• Business card
• Plastic bag
• Blue nylon rope
• Brown rope

         3. Victim-recovery scene:

• Plastic bags placed over Stites's hands during investigation
• Used condoms
• Two Busch beer cans
• Swabs/samples taken from mouths of two Busch beer cans
• Extract samples from blue condom stored in coin envelope
• Piece of shirt
• Piece of knife

         4. Other:

• Knee brace
• Back brace
• Green blanket
• White paper used under Stites's body during autopsy

         B. Live Hearing Testimony

         Reed's Chapter 64 motion largely hinges on the newly available analysis of touch DNA. Touch DNA is based on Locard's Principle that when a person touches something the person's epithelial, or skin, cells transfer to that object and then may be subjected to DNA analysis. But Reed also argued that items previously and successfully analyzed for DNA should be retested and subjected to more advanced and sensitive DNA analyses.

         John Paolucci, a former detective and crime scene expert specializing in DNA cases, testified that scratches found on Stites's back and the back of her hand suggested that she was dragged. Paolucci expected that the person who dragged Stites would most likely deposit skin cells on the part of Stites's body or clothing the perpetrator grabbed to pull her body. Because the belt had a similar pattern to the markings found on Stites's throat and was most likely used to strangle Stites with pressure, Paolucci opined there would likely be a significant deposit of the perpetrator's skin cells on it. As to the items found in Fennell's truck, and presumably the items found outside, Paolucci acknowledged he would presume that Fennell's DNA will be deposited on certain areas. Paolucci also noted that DNA testing would confirm or contradict accounts given by an alternate suspect. The commingling of a large number of the items Reed seeks to have tested in a box together would not, in Paolucci's opinion, make that evidence unsuitable for testing. In his opinion, even though the items are contaminated, Paolucci stated that if DNA profiles from contaminated and not contaminated items match, "you can start putting together evidence of an alternate suspect." Deanna Lankord, an associate laboratory director at Cellmark Forensics, similarly testified that she would look for touch DNA, in addition to performing a more traditional DNA analysis of previously tested biological evidence using newer, more advanced techniques. She testified that, in her experience, she has tested pieces of evidence that have been commingled in a single container. And in her experience, her laboratory has "had many cases where [it] . . . obtained probative results" even when evidence is stored in this manner. Based on the exchange principle, Lankford opined that all of the specified items contain some amount of DNA material. Without testing the items, however, she could not say for sure or give an opinion on the likelihood of discovering DNA to the extent of producing a DNA profile, or a person's identity based on testing deposited DNA.

         Lankford conceded that there could be infinite possibilities of DNA combinations on the items stored in the box of evidence maintained by the Bastrop Clerk's Office because many people may have touched the items. Lankford acknowledged compounded possibilities because, under the exchange principle, those handling the items could deposit others' DNA. Despite a conceivably infinite mix of DNA combinations, ...

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