HOUSTON (AP) — Supporters of a Texas death row inmate who is facing lethal injection in less than two weeks for a murder he says he didn't commit are mounting a final push in the courts and on social media to stop his execution, which is being called into question by lawmakers, pastors, celebrities and the European Union.
Rodney Reed is set to be executed on Nov. 20 for the killing of 19-year-old Stacey Stites near the Central Texas city of Bastrop. Prosecutors have steadfastly insisted that Reed raped and strangled Stites as she made her way to work at a supermarket around 3:30 a.m. on April 23, 1996.
Reed, 51, has long maintained he didn't kill Stites and that her fiance, former police officer Jimmy Fennell, was the real killer. Reed says Fennell was angry because Stites, who was white, was having an affair with Reed, who is black. In recent weeks, Reed's attorneys have presented affidavits in support of this, including one by a former prison inmate who claims Fennell bragged about killing Stites and referred to Reed by a racial slur. Reed's lawyers say other recent affidavits corroborate the relationship between Stites and Reed.
Reed's efforts to stop his execution have received support from such celebrities as Rihanna, Dr. Phil and Kim Kardashian West, who last month in a tweet asked Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to "do the right thing."
Reed's attorney and his brother, Rodrick Reed, believe race played a role in the case, pointing out that an all-white jury convicted Reed and that the case touched on "old tropes" about interracial relationships.
Reed's attorneys in August filed a federal lawsuit to compel DNA testing of crime scene evidence. His lawyers say the testing, which has been fought for years by prosecutors, could identify someone else as the murderer. The lawsuit is still pending.
"To execute Mr. Reed would be a grave miscarriage of justice," said Bryce Benjet, an attorney with the Innocence Project, which is representing Reed.
But prosecutors say Reed's semen was found in the victim, his claims of an affair with Stites were not proven at trial, Fennell was cleared as a suspect and Reed had a history of committing other sexual assaults. At Reed's trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Reed had assaulted five other women and a 12-year-old girl. Reed's lawyers have denied these accusations.
"Our office is dedicated to seeing that no innocent person is punished. This is simply not such a case and we owe it to Ms. Stites' family, friends and the many other victims of Mr. Reed to see that justice is done at last," Lisa Tanner, with the Texas Attorney General's Office, said in a statement.
Fennell's attorney, Bob Phillips, said his client vehemently denies killing Stites and that he was heartbroken by her death.
"All the evidence makes it plain as day that Rodney Reed is the killer and these fantastic 11th hour attempts to implicate Jimmy are the same song, 200th verse," Phillips said.
Reed's attorneys allege his conviction was based on flawed evidence. They say the prosecution's claim that the semen found on Stites pointed to a sexual assault has no basis in scientific literature. They also say a review by defense experts puts Stites' likely time of death hours before she left for work, when she was in her apartment with Fennell.
Reed's attorneys allege Fennell had a propensity for sexual assault and violence, which they say was confirmed by his conviction after Stites' death on a sexual assault charge from when he was a police officer.
Phillips said Fennell, who was paroled last year, has turned his life around and now helps substance abusers.
Arthur Snow, who was in the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood when he served time in prison with Fennell, said in an Oct. 29 affidavit that Fennell told him with pride that he had killed Stites, whom he spoke of "with a lot of hatred and resentment," because she had been having an affair with a black man. That conversation happened in about 2010, Snow said.
Snow had then been a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. But he said in the affidavit that he has since let go of some of his prejudices — with the arrival of grandchildren, he has "started to look at the world differently" — and that he came forward after reading about Reed's case over the years. He said it weighed on his conscience.
"I realized that Rodney Reed was sitting in prison for a murder that Jimmy Fennell had confessed to me that he had committed," Snow said. "I had planned to come forward back then, but never did."
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last month denied Reed's request for a stay of his execution. An appeal is pending with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Reed's lawyers have asked Abbott to grant a 30-day reprieve and to review a possible commutation of his sentence.
On Tuesday, 26 Texas lawmakers — 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans — sent Abbott a letter asking for a reprieve. The European Union ambassador to the U.S. has also asked Abbott to intervene.
An online petition asking Abbott to stop Reed's execution has garnered significant support.
Abbott's office didn't immediately reply to an email seeking comment. He has granted just one reprieve to stop an execution since he came to office in January 2015.
"I believe with all of the support that we have been receiving, it should send a strong and powerful message to the governor and to the world as to my brother's innocence. I am very hopeful that justice will be done in this case, not just for my brother, but for Stacey Stites as well," said Rodrick Reed.
Clarice Silber in Austin contributed to this report.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70