HOUSTON – What do Sen. Ted Cruz, Gigi Hadid, Kim Kardashian, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sister Helen Prejean all have in common?
They're among a growing local and national movement putting pressure on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to stop the scheduled Nov. 20 execution of death row inmate Rodney Reed, who was convicted in the 1996 rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacy Stites.
On April 23, 1996, Stites' body was found dumped on a rural road outside Bastrop, Texas near Austin. Investigators concluded marks on her neck indicated she'd been strangled. They also collected a sperm sample from her body.
Reed, who was 28 at the time, told officials he'd last seen Stites the previous day when the two met to have sex. He said the two were having an affair. Stites was engaged, at the time of her death, to Jimmy Fennel Jr., a police officer in the nearby town of Giddings, Texas. Fennel was later convicted of raping a woman in his custody in an unrelated case and was incarcerated.
In 1998, Reed was convicted for Stites' rape and murder. He has maintained his innocence for more than two decades. The only evidence found against him was the sperm sample found inside her body, though there was no evidence of rape. There were no fingerprints or hairs linking Reed to Stites' murder.
Prior to his 1998 conviction, Reed was accused of rape and abuse several times since the 1980s, though he'd never been convicted of any sexual assault. In most cases, he wasn't tried.
Over the years
Different witnesses have emerged over the years casting doubt on Reed's conviction.
A key witness for the defense was a man incarcerated with Fennel, Arthur Snow, who submitted a sworn affidavit claiming in 2010, Fennel had bragged to him about killing Stites while in prison. Snow was a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood in the prison at the time and was serving time for forgery.
Another witness statement from Bastrop County Sheriff's Deputy Richard Derleth stated he'd learned "Stites would hide from Fennel when Fennell would come into the HEB in order to avoid him starting a fight," according to a report by the NBC affiliate in Austin.
Fight for freedom
The Innocence Project of Texas has been working on Reed's behalf to stop his execution. The group, which focuses on DNA evidence to help exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates, claims Reed has been repeatedly denied DNA testing that would prove his innocence.
"Furthermore, three forensic experts have submitted affidavits recanting their original testimony and stating that the original time of death is inaccurate, making the timeline for Reed killing Stites implausible," the group writes on their website. "New witnesses, including Stites's own cousin, have come forward and corroborated Reed's claim that they knew that Reed and Stites were romantically involved."
Reed's family has fought for two decades to get his conviction overturned. In October, they reportedly rallied on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to stop his Nov. 20 scheduled execution.
Many high-profile celebrities and lawmakers have called for Abbott to intervene in the case and stop Reed's execution. An online petition on a Free Rodney Reed website was signed by 2.7 million people as of Tuesday evening.
On Sunday, a bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, came together and submitted a petition in support of a 30-day reprieve for Reed.
A community forum in Houston on Tuesday will be held at Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law. A documentary of Reed's case will be shown and later a panel including members of Reed's family will speak.