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Policy Letter

Amicus Brief: Sixth Amendment Requires New Trial for Rodney Reed

(Illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

Rodney Reed has been on Texas’s death row for 21 years, a time during which he has steadfastly maintained his innocence. Years after he was sentenced to death for the murder of Stacey Stites, he uncovered evidence that the state’s key witness—a law enforcement official and Stites’s fiancee, who was also a suspect in the case—had made a statement that not only contradicted his trial testimony, but also undermined the prosecution’s entire timeline concerning Stite’s murder.

When Reed received a new hearing the witness took the Fifth rather than testify and be confronted with this new evidence. Rather than evaluating whether this evidence—in conjunction with additional new forensic evidence supporting Reed’s claims of innocence—would lead the jury to a different result, the court hearing Reed’s appeal ignored it.

But our brief argues that’s a mistake: The Fifth Amendment protects the right to remain silent, but the Sixth guarantees that the accused have the opportunity to question witnesses against them. The testimony of witnesses who refuse to be cross-examined is not allowed in a trial. When considering this sort of new evidence, courts have to ask how the new information would have affected the original trial. In this case, the prosecution’s key witness wouldn’t have been able to testify, leading to a reasonable possibility that Reed would have been acquitted.

We filed this brief to ensure that courts safeguard the Constitution’s guarantee of a fair trial, including the right to cross-examine witnesses and the right to access exculpatory evidence in the possession of the prosecution.  And in no case could these rights be more important than when the state is seeking to execute the accused.

The Constitution Project is grateful to Justin Weddle and Julia Catania of Weddle Law LLC for their outstanding pro bono assistance on the amicus brief.