Rodney Reed, a 51-year-old death row inmate believed to be innocent of his 1996 murder conviction, is getting his case sent back to trial court.
The Austin American-Statesman reports that Reed has been assigned a new visiting judge, retired Judge J.D. Langley of the 85th Judicial District Court in Brazos County.
The new judge hails from the same county where Reed was accused of murdering Stacey Stites, the 19-year-old whom Reed was romantically involved with prior to her death.
Two weeks ago, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stopped the execution of Reed after a bipartisan coalition of activists, elected officials and celebrities urged Gov. Greg Abbott to put an end to the November 20, 2019 execution. The governor demurred and Texas’ highest criminal court eventually stepped in delay Reed’s execution.
Innocence Project, a nonprofit group legally representing Reed, highlighted substantial evidence that could exonerate Reed and implicate the fiancé of Sites. Among the key evidence that has brought the conviction into question is the fact that the murder weapon was never tested for DNA evidence, as well new testimony by a former prison mate of Stites’ fiancé– Jimmy Fennell– who said Fennell told him he killed his fiancé (after Reed was convicted, Fennell later served a 10-year prison term for a sex crime and kidnapping conviction).
As of yet, it’s not clear when the case will return to trial. But even before that, some activists and Reed’s legal defense have taken issue with the fact that a retired judge– instead of a locally elected judge– has been assigned to Reed’s case.
“[Texas] Law says that when a judge retires, the locally elected judge takes over,” said activist Shaun King. “Texas ignored the law, and brought another judge out of retirement from a different county.” According to the Statesman, Reed’s defense attorney Bryce Benjet has also taken issue with the fact that the case will not be presided over by a locally elected judge and plans to challenge the assignment.
Texas is one of 29 states that still practice capital punishment. A 2014 often-cited study by the National Academy of Sciences estimates that at least 4 percent of defendants on death row are innocent.
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