By DON HARMON
It is the legacy of our racist nation that yet another innocent African American man found himself — after a rigged and biased trial — about to be executed for a crime he did not commit. This time it is Rodney Reed, now age 51, who has been on Texas’s death row since 1998, when he was sentenced to die for the murder of a 19-year-old woman named Stacey Stites. This case was racially charged from the beginning, throughout the process of gathering evidence and the trial itself. It was a fait accompli of racist injustice: Reed, a black man, was found guilty of murdering Stites, a white woman, by an all-white jury.
Thanks to a vigorous defense from family, friends and anti-death penalty activists, Rodney Reed has a fighting chance for justice. Because of their efforts to make this a national cause, the Texas Parole Board voted to recommend that Texas Governor Abbott delay the execution for 120 days. And on November 15th, only five days before his scheduled execution, Texas’s Court of Criminal Appeals blocked the execution and issued an indefinite stay, sending the case back to the trial court, and arguing that this lower court should consider Reed’s innocence claims.
Millions of signatures
Why did these Texas judges and officials vote in favor of Rodney Reed? They were, and are, feeling the heat from nearly three million signatures demanding a new trial and the inclusion of DNA evidence. A bipartisan coalition of 26 Texas state representatives and 16 state senators sent letters to Governor Abbott calling for a reprieve. Many celebrities, including Oprah, Beyonce, Rihanna, Meek Mill and Kim Kardashian West, also joined the fight for a new trial. Television host and psychologist Phil McGraw featured Reed’s case on his show, Dr. Phil, that included interviews with families involved with the case and Reed himself.
“I am absolutely innocent of this case,” Reed said at the conclusion of his interview with McGraw. “I absolutely had nothing to do with Stacey’s death. I want to be a father to my kids. I want to be a grandfather to my grandchildren.… I want to be a part of my family and my friends’ lives.”
And why are millions demanding justice for Rodney Reed? There is growing evidence that Reed did not receive a fair trial, but instead was a victim of racial bias and gross incompetence. At Rodney Reed’s trial, prosecutors convicted him on the basis that DNA from his sperm was found in the victim’s body. However, Reed and his supporters say that he was having a secret romance with the victim Stacey Stites, giving her white police officer boyfriend, Jimmy Fennell, motive to kill her.
At the time of the trial, however, no one came forward to corroborate the Stites-Reed relationship. Today new witnesses, including the victim’s own cousin and co-worker, have corroborated Reed’s claim that they knew that Reed and Stites were romantically involved.
“Rodney has steadfastly maintained his innocence from Day 1,” insists the Free Rodney Reed website. “Absolutely zero evidence exists that Rodney had anything at all to do with this crime. He was in a consensual relationship with Stacey Stites and the only DNA of Rodney’s that was found was from this consensual relationship.”
According to the Innocence Project, which also serves as Reed’s legal representation, new evidence can prove that Stites’ fiance Jimmy Fennell was responsible for her death. Reed’s lawyers have placed suspicion on Fennell, in part because of his criminal history. In 2007, Fennell was convicted of kidnapping and raping a woman while on duty as a police officer, a crime for which he spent a decade behind bars. Also, Jimmy Fennell confessed to a fellow inmate while in prison that he had killed Stites.
Lack of DNA evidence at the trial
Requests for DNA testing of crime scene evidence, including a belt that was used as the murder weapon, have been repeatedly denied by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In 2018 the United States Supreme Court declined to directly review the Texas courts’ denial of DNA testing.
With the recent stay of execution and the growing demand for a new trial, Reed’s defense attorneys are hoping to use the new science of “touch DNA” on some 40 items — items recovered from Stites’s body or her clothing; items found in or near Fennell’s truck; and items found near the victim-recovery scene.
Exonerations Illustrate Racial Bias
The National Registry of Exonerations reports that in 2018, 66 defendants were exonerated of homicide. It is no surprise that of those 66 who were exonerated, the overwhelming majority are African American or Latino. Most recently in 2019, two Florida inmates in separate cases were exonerated and freed: Clemente Javier Aguirre, a Honduran national falsely convicted in 2006; and Clifford Williams, Jr., a black man falsely convicted in 1976 and finally freed after 43 long years.
On November 12th a Los Angeles judge vacated the 2008 armed robbery conviction of Ruben Martinez, Jr., who had been sentenced to 40 years, thus declaring him to be “factually innocent” in the judge’s words. On November 25th three Maryland black men — Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stuart, and Ransom Watkins — have been exonerated and liberated, nearly four decades after being falsely convicted of murder in 1984, when the three were teenagers.
In 21st century America, racism and incompetence permeate every level of our broken justice system, from the police to the courts to the growing constellation of prisons, and so the struggle continues. We have a victory here: Rodney Reed is on his way to getting a new trial, a fair trial. The important lesson here is that this victory is directly due to the family, friends and activists who would not, and did not, give up the fight. Readers, you don’t have to look far to find an innocent defendant in a city jail or state prison or federal prison who needs your public support.
Millions support Rodney Reed’s right to a new trial End the racist death penalty!