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'Express lane to death': Texas seeks approval to speed up death penalty appeals, execute more quickly

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Texas is seeking to speed up executions with a renewed request to opt-in to a federal law that would shorten the legal process and limit appeals options for death-sentenced prisoners.
Defense attorneys worry it would lead to the execution of innocent people and - if it's applied retroactively, as Texas is requesting - it could potentially end ongoing appeals for a number of death row prisoners and make them eligible for execution dates.
"Opt-in would speed up the death penalty treadmill exponentially," said Kathryn Kase, an longtime defense attorney and former executive director of Texas Defender Services.
But a state attorney general spokeswoman framed the request to the Justice Department as a necessary way to avoid "stressful delays" and cut down on the "excessive costs" of lengthy federal court proceedings.
Robbie Kaplan, co-founder of the #TimesUp movement, says sweeping changes to laws in recent years have dissuaded attorneys from taking on har…

Texas: New Rodney Reed Filing; Death row inmate's lawyers seek retrial

Texas death row, Polusnky Unit, Livingston, TX
Texas death row, Polusnky Unit, Livingston, TX
Attorneys for death row inmate Rodney Reed have filed a supplement to the Feb. 2015 brief seeking a retrial on his death penalty case, arguing that new evidence has come their way that further indicates that Reed is not responsible for the April 1996 murder of Stacey Stites.

The brief, filed June 7 to the Court of Criminal Appeals and Reed's trial court in Bastrop, points to a conflicting detail in the timeline of former Giddings Police Officer Jimmy Fennell, Stites' fiance and the man Reed defenders believe is actually responsible for killing Stites. Since Fennell first gave his official statement to police 2 days after Stites' body was found, the understanding was that he spent the night of April 22 at home with his fiancee - beginning at 8pm or 8:30 - and that he slept through her early morning departure for work at H-E-B. (Fennell testified in court to this chronology, as well.) But according to a recent interview with Curtis L. Davis - a Bastrop County Sheriff's deputy who at the time was one of Fennell's best friends - Fennell told Davis that he spent the night of April 22 drinking beer with fellow police officers by his truck after Little League baseball practice. Davis said Fennell told him the next morning that he didn't return home to Stites until 10 or 11 o'clock that night.

Reed's lead counsel, Innocence Project attorney Bryce Benjet, explained in the 19-page brief that Davis revealed this conflicting detail during an April interview with CNN. The network is currently producing a special for its show Death Row Stories about Reed's case and the efforts to save his life. (Indeed, the Chronicle was in Livingston, where death row inmates are housed, when CNN's crew interviewed Reed.) Benjet wrote that he had not been aware of the interview until one of CNN's producers asked Benjet to comment "about certain statements made by Officer Davis." He said that a producer of the show allowed him and an assistant to view "portions of the interview with Officer Davis and to briefly review a transcript of the entire interview." CNN declined to release a copy of the interview or the transcript for use with the filing. Benjet expects the "relevant portions" of the recording to be part of the special when it airs. A representative for CNN told the Chronicle that there is currently no airdate for the episode.

Benjet argues that Fennell's conflicting chronologies concerning how he spent the evening before Stites' murder further represents evidence of Fennell's consciousness of guilt, and that the notion of his drinking well into the night on April 22 would put him out of his and Stites' apartment at a time that 3 forensic pathologists have concluded was the actual time that Stites was killed. The state's theory holds that Stites was abducted by Reed and killed on her way to work on April 23, around 3am. Reed's Feb. 2015 petition for a retrial was rooted in the scientific conclusion that Stites actually died before midnight, on April 22, and that her body was moved from one location to another after she had been killed. The 2015 filing also notes that Davis accompanied Fennell through much of what the state accepts to be his discovery process of his red pickup truck after the murder, and notes how Davis signed out of a 12-hour work shift on April 22 after only 1 hour because of what he described as a "broken tooth." Davis then spent the next 3 days away from work on leave for a "personal death." The filing further notes how there is no documentation of any attempt by the police to interview Davis or otherwise establish whether he could have driven Jimmy Fennell home after dispensing of Stites and the truck.

The idea that Fennell was providing conflicting statements in the aftermath of Stites' murder aligns with six other instances listed by Benjet in the initial 2015 application for a rehearing. Benjet also implies that Fennell provided false testimony during trial, and that the state's failure to provide this information on trial constitutes a violation of due process under Brady v. Maryland. (Fennell is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence that began in 2008 after he accepted a plea deal on charges that he raped a woman while on duty as a police officer in nearby Georgetown.)

"In this case, the State failed to disclose Fennell's inconsistent statement as to his whereabouts on the night of April 22, 1996," Benjet wrote. "Even though the trial prosecutors may not have been aware of what Officer Davis learned from Fennell, Officer Davis was a Bastrop County Sheriff's Officer. And the [BCSO] was the lead agency investigating Stacey's murder. Accordingly, Officer Davis' knowledge of what Fennell told him is imputed to the State."

Reed most recently faced an execution date of March 5, 2015, but saw his execution stayed 2 weeks earlier, as the Court of Criminal Appeals sought more time to review the merits of the claims made in his Feb. 2015 filing. There is currently no timetable for advancements in his case.

Source: Austin Chronicle, June 23, 2016

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