UPDATE March 5, 2018:
Jimmy Fennell, an original person of interest in the 1996 murder of his fiancé Stacey Stites, is set to be paroled and released from prison on March 9. He is finishing a 10-year sentence after pleading guilty to separate crimes of kidnapping and improper sexual activity with a person in his custody, KXAN reports.
Fennell, 45, was accused of raping a woman under his arrest in 2007, when he was a Georgetown police officer. However, it has been Fennell’s ties to Stites, and the high-profile capital murder case of Rodney Reed, that have kept him in the spotlight for years.
Jimmy Fennell has never been charged in connection with Stacey Stites's murder.
Rodney Reed remains on death row waiting to see if the new evidence is enough to grant him a new trial.
In January, the judge overseeing the hearing for the new evidence makes his recommendation to the court of appeals: no new trial.
But there is still a chance for Rodney Reed. The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals has the final say, and a ruling is expected in the next two months. Reed is also appealing to the Supreme Court.
Oct. 25, 2016:
His name is Rodney Reed. He's waiting out his final days in a Texas prison, sentenced to death. But Rodney maintains he didn't do it. Nerissa Knight reports.
In Bastrop County, Texas, the murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites set off a bizarre chain of events that mysteriously ended with two more people dead, one man on death row, and countless questions unanswered.
Murder deep in the lost pines of Texas: April 23, 1996, the half-dressed murdered body of a woman is discovered. Who killed Stacey Stites?
The state of Texas says Rodney Reed raped and then killed Stites. A jury agreed, convicting him of her murder. Reed was sentenced to death.
Convicted killer Rodney Reed spends 23 hours a day locked in a 60-square-foot cell on death row. Like many inmates, Reed claims he's innocent of murder.
Many across the country are beginning to wonder: Did Texas convict the wrong man?
Stacey's sisters Debra Oliver and Crystal Hefley exclusively tell Crime Watch Daily that they are convinced of his guilt.
Stacey Stites worked in the produce section of the local supermarket in Bastrop County, about 30 miles south of Austin. She lived with her fiancé, a police officer named Jimmy Fennell.
Fennell told investigators he was asleep when Stites got into his red pickup truck and left for work around 3 a.m. When she didn't show for her shift, cops triggered a massive search.
Nearly 12 hours after Fennell says Stites left home, her body was found alongside a country road.
In crime scene video shot by investigators moments after the gruesome discovery, ligature marks can be seen on Stites's throat. There are two cans of beer, and about 10 feet away, half of a belt. The belt, cops believe, was used to strangle her. Strangely, the other half was found several miles away alongside Fennell's truck, the truck he says she drove to work.
Before Jimmy Fennell sold the truck, cops dusted it for fingerprints. The only prints detectives found belonged to Stacey and Jimmy. He became the first person put under the police microscope
Cops quickly eliminated Fennell because they claimed he didn't fit into their murder timeline. During the autopsy, the Travis County Coroner found something sinister and suspicious: male DNA inside Stites's body -- and it wasn't Fennell's.
Several months pass and Stites's murder case goes cold. Then, an unexpected break: police investigate a sexual assault near the high school where Fennell's truck was parked.
The woman picks out her alleged attacker from a photo lineup: It was Rodney Reed. Reed was well-known to authorities. The state claims Reed had a history of sexual violence, including the rape of a 12-year-old girl. He was never convicted in those cases. Then investigators make a stunning discovery: Reed's DNA matched the DNA found inside Stacey Stites's body. Reed was charged with aggravated sexual assault and capital murder.
At first Reed denied knowing Stites. But as the evidence unfolded, his story changed. He claims he and Stites were in a secret relationship and had sex the night before she was murdered.
Rodney Reed pleaded not guilty and stood trial based primarily on the DNA evidence. The jury convicted him of capital murder and he was sentenced to death.
Less than six months after Stacey Stites was murdered, the officer who was investigating her death was murdered. Giddings, Texas Police Officer Joe Bryant was conducting an unauthorized investigation into Stites's killing when he was gunned down by a migrant worker from Mexico.
Bryant's widow Maria says before his murder, he revealed the identity of who he thought was the killer.
"He said Jimmy Fennell killed Stacey Stites," said Maria Bryant Fountain.
Jimmy Fennell, Stites's fiancé -- also a police officer.
And a second police officer involved died under mysterious circumstances. Bastrop Police Detective Ed Salmela was one of the first cops on the scene of the crime. Nearly four months later he was dead from what the coroner called a self-inflicted wound. But his brother Scott says he doesn't buy it.
Texas Assistant Attorney General Lisa Tanner prosecuted the case against Rodney Reed. She says there is no connection between the two officers' deaths and Stacey Stites.
Two reasons many are now looking at Fennell: In court documents, Reed's attorneys claim he told another cop, "If he ever discovered Stites cheating on him he would strangle her," and "he would use a belt."
Also, it turns out detectives never searched the apartment he shared with Stites.
Fennell was cleared as a suspect and never charged in connection with Stites's murder.
Prosecutors say it was impossible that Fennell could have done it. They argued Stites was killed between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. while Fennell was sleeping at home. Investigators say he couldn't have driven the body to the field, dumped the truck at the high school, and then, without any transportation, walked some 30 miles on rural roads in the middle of the night back to his apartment.
The state says it's clear Fennell is no killer, But he's no Boy Scout either. Connie Lear says Jimmy Fennell sexually assaulted her. She says it happened when gave her a ride to a hotel after she and her boyfriend got into an argument.
Lear reported Fennell, and prosecutors believed her. Fennell copped a plea deal: Guilty to kidnapping and improper sexual activity with a person in custody. He was sentenced to 10 years in state prison. Crime Watch Daily contacted Fennell in prison for a comment, but he isn't talking.
So why are Reed's attorneys now floating this theory that Fennell killed Stites? In court papers they claim new evidence actually clears Rodney Reed. Three forensic scientists have looked at the evidence against Reed and all three of them say the same thing: Rodney Reed is not the killer
In court documents filed by Reed's attorneys, the pathologists claim his guilt is "medically and scientifically impossible" -- if she really was killed between 3 and 6 a.m. In crime scene video taken 15 hours after Fennell says Stites left their apartment, retired NYPD detective and noted forensics expert Kevin Gannon says Stites's body appears to be in an advanced stage of rigor mortis, which could indicate she died long before the state's case claimed. He says she was deceased for 24 hours, not the 15 hours that she was missing.
And after further examining the evidence for Crime Watch Daily, Gannon has another remarkable theory. He believes strangulation was not what killed Stites.
"Here's a woman on land but she has 1,200 grams of fluid in her lungs, and the normal amount of fluid in the lungs for somebody of her size should be like 600, maybe 700 grams," said Gannon. "When you have over a thousand it is pretty much considered a drowning. I think she was strangled to restrain her. I think she was drowned."
Convicted killer Rodney Reed's date with death is on hold. An appellate court stayed his execution indefinitely pending a review of new evidence in the murder of Stacey Stites.
Reed's attorneys say "the existing evidence raises a 'healthy suspicion' that Jimmy Fennell and not Mr. Reed committed the murder."
"They're still trying to kill me for something I had nothing to do with," says Rodney Reed.
But the state of Texas says there is no dispute: Reed is the killer.
"I tell the people who say that that they need to read the evidence," said Texas Assistant Attorney General Lisa Tanner. "Read the file. Look at the evidence, because it speaks for itself. None of the evidence that has developed since the trial has lead us away from the conclusion that he is guilty of this crime."
One juror who voted to send Reed to death row now she says she has regrets. It's a stunning claim you'll see only on Crime Watch Daily. She wonders, Did she convict the wrong man? We're hiding her identity for her safety.
"I voted guilty," she says. "I stand by the decision because I based it on the evidence presented and what I knew at the time. Since then there have been a lot of things that I've learned in that 20 years, heard about, that have made me wonder if Rodney was framed."
Rodney Reed's brother, Roderick, says his brother told him Fennell threatened him when he found out about the alleged relationship with Stites.
"Rodney was threatened by Jimmy Fennell, saying that if he continued to see his fiancée that he would kill him," said Roderick.
"I kind of moved from being 'It's taken way too long to put him to death,' all the way over to 'He shouldn't be sentenced at all when there's all these questions, and he needs a new trial,'" said Heather Stobbs, Stacey Stites's first cousin.
Stacey's sisters say Stobbs is just looking for her 15 minutes of fame.
Saving Rodney Reed is the full-time job of his attorney Bryce Benjet from the Innocence Project.
"His conviction is a miscarriage of justice," said Benjet. Benjet successfully persuaded the Texas Court of Appeals to issue the stay of execution.
Remember those beer cans found at the crime scene? Benjet says DNA results from the cans were never introduced in the trial. He says Reed's DNA was not on them -- the DNA belongs to another officer who was a friend of Fennell's
"You had a very exculpatory DNA report that said two police officers and Stacey could not be excluded from this beer can," said Benjet. "Now subsequent DNA testing of that beer can excluded Stacey.
"This is a case where there are numerous questions about the evidence," said Benjet. "What was presented to the jury just doesn't add up when you look at the evidence today."
Benjet says he wants more DNA testing on the evidence, and questions swirl about the belt. But the state says any testing on the murder weapon would yield no results.
"The belt that was the murder weapon was introduced into evidence because the standards were different," said Texas Assistant Attorney General Tanner. "It was not handled with gloves. I handled it, the defense attorneys handled it, the medical examiner handled it, other witnesses handled it. It was sent back to the jurors, probably all 12 jurors could have handled it. If it were tested there's no way of knowing whose DNA you're going to get."
Jimmy Fennell was never charged in connection with Stacey Stites's murder. Fennell is expected to be released from prison by 2018.
For now Rodney Reed remains on death row until the courts sort all this out.