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Forensics on stand on day seven of Rodney Reed appeals hearing

Rodney Reed, a death row inmate, was convicted in 1998 for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop County.

BASTROP, Texas — Day seven of the Rodney Reed evidentiary hearing started off with a housekeeping note.

Judge J.D. Langley told attorneys that since the defense has about 17 hours left and the State has about 16 hours left, the hearing will go on longer each day this week in order to finish up by Friday. If not, the hearing may have to be extended to next week.

State witness Dr. Suzanna Dana, a former deputy medical examiner for the Travis County Medical Examiner's Office, continued on the stand from the day before.

She testified that she worked with Dr. Roberto Bayardo, the former chief medical examiner for Travis County, before leaving in 2008 to open her own practice, Central Texas Autopsy, in Lockhart. She said she enjoyed working with Dr. Bayardo.

During questioning by prosecutor Lisa Tanner, Dr. Dana said the anus dilutes naturally at the time of death. She said she could not tell if Stacey Stites' sustained injuries around hers or if her anus had penetration.

In cross-examination, Dr. Dana told defense attorney Barry Scheck she was asked by the State to review the Reed case. She gets paid $500 an hour and so far she has spent 40 hours on this case, racking up some $20,000, but she said she will likely not bill for that much.

Dr. Dana went on to say she was unaware of Reed case when contacted about taking on the review.

When Scheck asked why she left the Travis County Medical Examiner's Office, Dr. Dana said it wasn't because the office was under fire or that she felt overworked. She said it was because she felt confined on the quality of work she could do. She testified the office didn't have the money, which is not unusual for ME offices.

She also said while Dr. Bayardo reviewed her work, she did not review his work.

Time of death is one of the main issues this case is based on: the State maintains Stites died between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. Dr. Dana agreed. 

Another issue is how long intact sperm can remain alive in the body. Dr. Dana contradicts with the defense's two experts called last week. She said intact sperm cannot live longer than 26 hours.

Dr. Normal Farley agrees. She is the second state witness called to the stand. She's the deputy chief medical examiner from Bexar County. She said she has testified many times before, authored many articles and sat on the Texas Forensic Science Commission. 

She said she was asked to review the Reed case and issued her findings on July 1, 2021, after about 20 hours of review. She testified she studied autopsy photos, autopsy reports, scene photos, video, the Texas Rangers report, expert reports, Dr. Bayardo's report and affidavits. 

Dr. Farley said, as a general rule, rigor mortis, which develops after death, can start setting in as early as 30 minutes. She said it's hard to determine time of death, but based on the information given to her from the State, she agrees with the State that Stites was killed between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.

She testified based on facts like no drag marks on her body, the body found partially clothed, a zipper broken on the pants and a knee brace still on. It appeared she was headed somewhere, she testified. With the body found in a remote location and Stites found strangulated, Dr. Farley believes Stites was sexually assaulted.

Amber Moss, a DNA analyst for the Texas Department of Public Safety from Garland, was the last state witness of the day. She did not get involved in Reed's case until the post-conviction phase.

She testified the DNA testing conducted on April 3, 1997, was less discriminating but it was the same basic science. Moss said that DNA sample from the Stites murder scene compared 28 suspects and it only came up with one match – Reed. 

Testimony continues Wednesday morning at 9 a.m.

In 1998, Reed was convicted of the 1996 abduction, rape and murder of Stites. For more than 20 years, Reed has maintained his innocence and he is now trying to get a new trial to clear his name.

On Monday, day six of the evidentiary hearing, the state continued to call witnesses to try to prove Reed's guilt. The state's first witness Monday was Sgt. Brian Seales, an investigator with the Texas Attorney General's Office. 

Seales testified he was contacted by his supervisor on Saturday to do a search for Jimmy Fennell in Austin Chronicle articles. He testified he searched as far back as 2001 and used three phrases for the single search: Rodney Reed, Jimmy Fennell and Stacey Stites. Seales said he found one article in 2005 and found an image of Fennell in a September 2008 article where Fennell pleaded guilty to kidnapping and sexual misconduct.

The State's second witness Monday was Dr. Deborah Davis, a memory expert. She testified that eyewitness testimony is unreliable and that factors like the passage of time play a big role in memory. She also testified that seeing media coverage of something can result in false memories.

The State's third witness was Dr. Suzanna Dana, a forensic pathologist whose testimony regarding Stites' time of death directly contradicted that of two defense witnesses last week. Read more about Dana's testimony, as well as the rest of Monday's proceedings, here.

Day 7 live updates: 

5:13 p.m. – The State's next witness is Amber Moss, a DNA analyst for the Texas DPS Crime Lab in Garland. Prosecutor Lisa Tanner is questioning Moss. Moss has testified more than 100 times and got involved in Reed's case in the post-conviction phase. Moss says the DNA testing done on April 3, 1997, was less discriminating than now but same basic science.

Moss says she compared that DNA to a sample taken from Stites' body and came back with a match as Rodney Reed. She also performed DNA testing on a vaginal swab from Stites and from panties on the scene and confirmed DNA was consistent with Reed's.

4:21 p.m. – Prosecutor Lisa Tanner is questioning Dr. Norma Farley's viewing of autopsy video of Stacey Stites. Signs of rigor mortis are still present. Defense attorney Jane Pucher in cross said Stites was not dragged.

2:37 p.m. – The second state witness of day is Dr. Norma Farley, Bexar County deputy chief medical examiner, who said Stacey Stites' body was in rigor mortis, not full. Her body was placed in position after being carried in the brush, with scratches on her body, she said. 

Dr. Norma Farley said ant bites on her body and no drag marks on the body led her to believe someone placed Stites' body at the crime scene. It appeared Stites was going to work because of what she was wearing. 

Dr. Norma Farley said more likely the sperm taken from the crime scene showed Stites was sexually assaulted because she was partially clothed, the body was found in a remote location, Stites was found strangulated, Stites' pants were undone and the zipper was broken.

1:57 p.m. – Dr. Suzanna Dana, the State's forensic pathologist, remains on the stand. Stacey Stites' post-mortem body was shown on-screen. Defense attorney Barry Scheck asked about Dr. Roberto Bayardo's testimony in 1998 regarding anal penetration.  

Dr. Dana said she doesn't see anything in Stites' autopsy report that shows Stites was anally penetrated and then strangled. Prosecutor Lisa Tanner questioned Dr. Dana, asking who is the best person to determine anal injuries that Stites sustained? Dr. Dana said that was Dr. Bayardo. 

11:15 a.m. – Dana's testimony is interrupted with an objection from the state when the defense wants to ask about a Texas administrative law that didn't exist in 1996. The judge appears visibly annoyed, and Scheck says he regrets testing the judge's patience.

Scheck continues questioning Dana. Dana says she disagreed with a study that showed intact sperm could survive up to 48 hours because that study featured live individuals and not deceased individuals.

Scheck shows Dana Dr. Bayardo's 2012 affidavit where he said his previous testimony was not medically supported and that the sperm discovered on Stites' body was not deposited within 24 hours before her death. Dana goes through Bayarrdo's trial testimony with Scheck. 

Bayardo agreed he wasn't asked about the crime scene, just that he estimated the initial time of death varied in a four-hour range, then a two-hour range (3 a.m. to 5 a.m.).

Dana says, from trial testimony, that the jury did not get a full picture of the crime scene. She disagrees with Bayardo's later affidavit where he said he would not have advised prosecutors to use his estimation of Stites' time of death at trial.

10:45 a.m. – The hearing takes a break.

9:30 a.m. – Dr. Suzanna Dana is back on the stand. The State continues questioning from Monday. Dana is a forensic pathologist who agreed with Dr. Roberto Bayardo’s time of death for Stacey Stites: between 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. Now, she says, she can’t tell if for sure Stites was sexually assaulted.

Dana says the sperm found in Stites was fairly fresh and not old. Defense attorney Barry Scheck is now cross-examining Dana. Dana says she charges $500 an hour, and so far, she has spent 40 hours working on the Reed case for the state. That’s $20,000, but she said she likely won’t bill that amount.

Scheck notes that Dana worked with Dr. Bayardo at the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office. He was her supervisor. Scheck says she liked him.

Dana says she left the Travis County Medical Examiner's Office in 2006 not because the office came under fire but because she said she was not allowed to do the quality of work she wanted. She says the office didn't have enough money, which is not unusual for medical examiners' offices. She says she did not feel overworked.

She adds that Bayardo peer-reviewed her work but she did not review his. Going over an article discussing rigor, she says to determine how much rigor there is is subjective. Contextual bias and if that influences forensic pathologists is discussed.

Background:

Earlier this month, Reed attended a pre-evidentiary hearing in Bastrop County. Reed’s defense attorneys said they have new forensic evidence to present during the appeal hearing that will prove his innocence.

The defense also said it has expert testimony showing that Stites died earlier than originally thought and that sperm can remain intact longer.

The appeal hearing is expected to last for two weeks.

In 2019, Reed received a stay of execution, just days before his scheduled execution date. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the stay based on possibly concealed information, false testimony and the chance that he is innocent.

His case gained national attention in 2019 after celebrities, including Beyonce and Kim Kardashian, spoke out in an effort to stop his execution.

Stites was killed in 1996, just days before her wedding. Her body was found along a highway in Bastrop County, and authorities arrested Reed after his DNA matched the DNA found inside her body.

Reed maintains he is innocent, stating he and Stites were having a consensual affair.  

KVUE launched a podcast in 2019, taking a look at Reed's case. Listen here.

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