By Brad Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday halted the execution of Rodney Reed, who was convicted of killing his 19-year-old lover in 1996, as recent calls for his exoneration and a fresh look at his case got more intense.
Nearly 3 million people have signed an online petition on the website Freerodneyreed.com, while Republican and Democrats alike along with several high-profile celebrities have spoken out against Reed's impending execution, which had been scheduled for next week.
"Thank you to all who called, tweeted, and spoke out against the execution of an innocent person. Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we keep working to prove Rodney Reed's innocence," the Innocence Project, which has been working on the case, tweeted.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the execution and sent the case back to trial court, ruling that Reed's lawyers had met legal requirements for a re-examination by a lower court on whether or not prosecutors presented false testimony, suppressed evidence and on Reed's assertion that he is innocent, according to the ruling.
Since an all-white jury convicted Reed, a 51-year-old black man, and sentenced him to death in 1998, Reed's attorneys and activists have worked to exonerate him for the death of Stacey Stites.
Reed was having a sexual relationship with the 19-year-old grocery store worker when she was found raped and strangled along the side of a road in Bastrop on April 23, 1996.
The state's case against Reed hinged on whether sperm found at the murder scene was the result of sexual assault or a previous consensual sexual encounter with Reed.
The Innocence Project said that forensic experts who testified against Reed later admitted they made errors in their analysis.
The organization has also raised questions about her fiancÃ©e, Jimmy Fennell, a local police officer who lived with her and was with her the night before she was found dead.
Fennell has maintained his innocence.
Fennell, who was for a time the prime suspect, underwent several interrogations, lie-detector tests and a blood test but was never charged.
The Innocence Project claimed that witnesses have come forward to implicate Fennell, who later served a 10-year prison term for a sex crime and kidnapping, saying he made incriminating statements after her death and during the investigation.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Sandra Maler)