Supreme Court hears case of Texas man on death row
The United States Supreme Court building. (Shutterstock.com)

The US Supreme Court heard an appeal Tuesday from a Texas man on death row who maintains his innocence and whose case has drawn the attention of celebrities, lawmakers and millions of Americans.

The court did not address the merits of Rodney Reed's case, but debated a narrow technical issue, relating to delays in criminal proceedings.

Its decision, expected before June 30, will however have a direct impact on the future of the 54-year-old Texan by authorizing the reopening of his case or, on the contrary, his execution by lethal injection.

Reed, an African-American man, was convicted by an all-white jury in 1998 of the rape and murder of Stacey Stites, a 19-year-old white woman.

Traces of his sperm were found on the victim's body, but Reed insists he is innocent of the 1996 murder and that he and Stites had a secret consensual relationship.

Reed's supporters believe that evidence gathered after the trial points to another suspect, Stites's fiance Jimmy Fennell, a disgraced police officer who later served a 10-year prison sentence for a kidnapping and rape committed while on duty.

A fellow inmate says Fennell confessed to him that he had killed Stites because she was sleeping with a Black man.

Fennell has denied any involvement in Stites's murder, but police initially considered him a suspect.

Texas prosecutors claimed during Reed's trial that he had sexually assaulted several other women before Stites's murder.

His execution was stayed just five days before it was to be carried out in 2019 following a campaign that included reality star Kim Kardashian, the singers Rihanna and Beyonce, and Texas lawmakers including Republican Senator Ted Cruz.

Two petitions seeking to halt Reed's execution that circulated on the internet drew more than 3.5 million signatures.

To prove his innocence, Reed asked the Texas authorities in 2014 to conduct new DNA analysis on the murder weapon, a belt that was used to strangle Stites.

His appeals for DNA testing were repeatedly denied by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, so Reed turned to the federal courts.

But they refused to intervene on the grounds the request came too late, after the two-year window allowed to challenge a state court ruling in federal court had closed.

The question before the Supreme Court is, when does the window open?

At the hearing, judges appointed by Democrats seemed to be leaning in his favor.

"Isn't that the simplest thing just to say (that) the person isn't harmed until the state process has come to an end and we know for a fact what the state judgment is?" asked justice Elena Kagan.

Conservative justices, who regularly denounce the delaying tactics of death row inmates, did not show their preference.

Judge Samuel Alito merely noted the issue is "case specific and really quite narrow."

Supporters of Reed gathered in front of the Supreme Court with a large banner proclaiming "Rodney Reed is innocent!"