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Bastrop County DA Bryan Goertz has spent years fighting to block DNA testing that could prove #RodneyReed’s innocence. Rodney’s attorneys filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against DA Goertz and other Texas officials who have custody of evidence in the case. Thread:
#RodneyReed was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites. He has been on death row in Texas since 1998. Important evidence in the case was never tested for DNA.
An autopsy confirmed that Stacey Stites was strangled with her own belt. The killer must have forcefully gripped the belt with both hands for a substantial amount of time. The belt was collected as evidence immediately and has been held under lock and key ever since.
Shockingly, the belt has never been tested for DNA. A representative from the Clerk’s office testified that the belt has always been kept locked away and no one has ever tampered with the belt. Modern DNA testing could extract valuable biological evidence from the belt.
Additional items of evidence were also collected and have been locked away for over 20 years without any DNA testing. These items have not been tampered with and likely contain biological material that could link back to the real killer through modern DNA testing.
In 2014, #RodneyReed’s attorneys presented expert testimony that these untested evidence items likely contain DNA evidence that could prove Rodney’s innocence. The prosecution did not argue against this fact, but instead claimed that the evidence was contaminated in storage.
The custodian of evidence testified that the evidence items were secured “under lock and key” and that she was confident that the evidence items had “not been substituted, replaced, tampered with, or materially altered.”
At the end of that 2014 hearing, the retired presiding judge verbally expressed that he intended to deny #RodneyReed’s request for DNA testing. The judge asked the prosecution to write the order for him and then signed it without any changes.
#RodneyReed’s attorneys unsuccessfully appealed to the TX Court of Criminal Appeals. These evidence items remain untested for DNA that could prove Rodney’s innocence. The federal lawsuit asks the federal court to rule that the denial of DNA testing is a constitutional violation.
The TX Attorney General’s office filed a response to #RodneyReed’s federal civil rights lawsuit. Rather than responding to the evidence that Rodney is innocent, the AG’s office made several technical legal arguments that ignore the fact that an innocent man could be executed.
First, the Texas AG’s office argued that the federal court doesn’t have jurisdiction to consider the lawsuit. They’re trying to short-circuit the case before the federal court even considers the state’s constitutional violations against #RodneyReed.
The Texas AG’s office then raised a complicated legal rule called the “Rooker-Feldman Doctrine,” basically arguing that #RodneyReed cannot challenge a state court’s decision in federal court. But that’s not what’s happening. Rodney is bringing forward constitutional violations.
Next, the TX AG’s office argued that the evidence items are property held exclusively in a “constructive trust” by the state courts, so the federal court doesn’t have power to order the evidence removed. They cite a legal opinion written by their own office to support this claim!
The Texas AG’s office went on to argue that all of the state officials are immune from the lawsuit because they have state sovereign immunity. Another argument is tacked on. The AG’s office claims that #RodneyReed can’t sue DA Goertz because of “absolute prosecutorial immunity.”
The Texas AG’s office argued several times that #RodneyReed is too late to request DNA testing even though there’s no concrete deadline. Here’s a revealing quote from the AG’s legal brief: “Convicted individuals have no constitutional right to postconviction DNA testing.”
During the state court process, the judge signed two contradictory orders – one written by the prosecution and one written by the defense on the same issues. AG’s office response: “It certainly cannot be said that due process requires perfection in the postconviction process.”
The Texas AG’s office went out of its way to tell the federal court that the state is not required to provide postconviction review, not required to provide a postconviction lawyer (even in capital cases), and it’s okay if a prisoner is mentally incompetent during the process.
This is a lot of information, so here are the takeaways. #RodneyReed’s attorneys presented serious constitutional violations. The Texas AG’s office responded with technical arguments, arcane legal rules, and quotes that show a disregard for true justice. The case remains pending.
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