(KXAN) – The U.S. Supreme Court sided Wednesday with Texas inmate Rodney Reed, with the majority of the justices agreeing that a lower court had wrongfully dismissed a lawsuit Reed filed seeking further DNA testing of crime scene evidence, such as the murder weapon, in his death-row case.
For years, Reed’s defense team has fought for additional DNA testing. The latest Supreme Court decision relates to a lawsuit Reed filed to ultimately get more testing done.
You can read the full Supreme Court opinion here.
The issue before the Supreme Court traced back to a 2014 motion Reed filed in Texas state court requesting DNA testing on certain evidence, including a belt believed to have been used to strangle the 1996 murder victim, 19-year-old Stacey Stites. Reed’s motion was denied by a state court, in part because the evidence was not well preserved. Reed later sued in federal court, arguing that “the law’s stringent chain-of-custody requirement was unconstitutional,” according to the opinion.
A federal district court dismissed that lawsuit, and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal on the ground that the claim was filed too late, according to the Supreme Court opinion. Reed’s argument to the Supreme Court, which the court agreed with, was that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was wrong in saying the claim was too late.
“This opinion today means that (Reed) has the opportunity to continue to fight to get DNA testing. It means that he can go back to the Fifth Circuit and hopefully get more arguments and get more of an opportunity to argue that he is entitled, under the Texas post-conviction DNA testing statute to get DNA testing,” said Jane Pucher, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project representing Reed.
Pucher said one of the most basic things in crime scene investigation, when someone is killed, is testing the murder weapon.
“That’s all that Mr. Reed has been asking to do here, and the state has routinely refused to agree to that testing, and he’s been shut out of court until this moment,” she said.
Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh delivered the opinion and was joined by justices John Roberts, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion, and Samuel Alito also wrote a dissenting opinion joined by Neil Gorsuch.
In his dissenting opinion, Alito said the statute of limitations on Reed’s claim, which was filed on August 8, 2019, was two years. The critical question was when the 2-year statute of limitations began to run – or “accrued.” Alito disagreed that statute of limitations began to run after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied a rehearing on Oct. 4, 2017.
“There is room for debate about exactly when Reed’s DNA testing claim accrued, but in my view, the notion that this did not take place until rehearing was denied is clearly wrong,” Alito wrote.
Reed has been on death row since his conviction in Bastrop in 1997, but he has maintained his innocence. Reed is represented by The Innocence Project. His defense team’s continued work on the case has unearthed new evidence that, they say, warrants a new trial.
Aside from the Supreme Court opinion, Reed has two petitions still pending in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
KXAN has also requested an interview or statement by email from Bastrop District Attorney Bryan Goertz, a prosecutor in the case. Goertz did not immediately respond.
Reed’s family is feeling like there’s a little hope now.
“Praise god,” Rodrick Reed, Reed’s brother said. “We don’t want him to be pardoned we want exoneration.”
Stites’ family hoped they were nearing some closure.
“It’s time for our family to be able to move on, Debra Oliver, Stites’ sister said. “It’s torturous for victims families to have to continue to relive this over and over and over again.”
Oliver said she doesn’t think presenting new DNA evidence will be effective.
“I don’t think that testing the belt and the DNA that they’re going to find on it is going to make any difference,” Oliver said. “…Doesn’t negate the fact of the DNA that was found on her dead body, especially the saliva that was on her breast…this is just a stall tactic.
Reed’s brother said the fact that not all DNA evidence has been presented doesn’t sit well with him.
“Why wouldn’t they test the DNA right out the gate?,” Reed said. “If they don’t test the DNA, it’s a red flag, they’re telling you something is wrong…we want his innocence to be known around the world. just like they tried to put him to death.”
Reed said the family is planning a rally to work to prove his innocence.