The fight against lynching and the death penalty has a rich history. For Ida B. Wells, it was her life’s work. She and other abolitionists organized for federal anti-lynching legislation; as a result of this pressure, nearly two hundred anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, yet none passed. Rosa Parks spent years of her life fighting to win justice for Jeremiah Reeves, who was ultimately executed in Alabama for the “crime” of having an affair with a white woman.
Today, abolitionists are engaged in another battle against legal lynching playing out in the state of Texas. And, like the battles of the past, this one involves racism, police cover-ups, corrupt prosecutions, judges’ blatant disregard for evidence of innocence, and a public outcry demanding a wrong be righted.
Rodney Reed has spent twenty-two years on death row for the rape and murder of Stacey Stites in 1996 in Bastrop, Texas, thirty miles southeast of Austin. Reed will be executed on November 20 for a crime he says he didn’t commit if Texas governor Greg Abbott or the courts don’t intervene to stop it.
According to Lily Hughes, former national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and a leading organizer of the fight for Rodney, “Now it’s about whether or not our side is big enough and strong enough to make the other side do what they otherwise wouldn’t do.”
The Making of a Racist Injustice
Reed wasn’t implicated until nearly a year after Stites’s death, after a small amount of sperm taken from her body was identified as matching his DNA. Up until then, the main suspect in the case had been Jimmy Fennell, Stites’s fiancé and a Giddings police officer at the time. The investigation into Fennell was dropped when Reed’s DNA matched, and Reed was charged with sexual assault and capital murder.
But Reed says that he and Stites were having a relationship, and more than twenty people have now corroborated this. One of them is Alicia Slater, a former coworker of Stites, who remembers that Stites said she was “sleeping with a black guy named Rodney and that she didn’t know what her fiancé would do if he found out,” so “she had to be careful.”
At the trial, a forensics witness testified that the semen linked to Reed couldn’t have been more than twenty hours old, fixing the time of Stites’s death in the early morning hours. This fit with Fennell’s claim that Stites had left their apartment in the nearby town of Giddings to go to work at this time. But experts say that the sperm could have been as much as three days old, and the prosecution witness from Reed’s trial now admits as much. Reed has always maintained that he and Stites had sex two days before her death. So it is entirely possible that Stites’s murder took place earlier, when she was with Fennell at their apartment, the last time she was seen alive.
Reed was found guilty by an all-white jury. His inexperienced court-appointed lawyers did call two witnesses who said they knew of the affair between Reed and Stites, but they failed to investigate or call other witnesses who could have helped demonstrate his innocence.
In the years since, however, every single piece of the prosecution’s case against Rodney has crumbled — everything “but a lingering prejudice that consensual, interracial relationships did not happen in rural Bastrop, Texas in 1996,” Rodney’s lawyers wrote in a recent appeal to the US Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the case against Fennell has become overwhelming. During the initial investigation, Fennell failed two polygraph tests when asked if he strangled Stites with a belt, which is how she was killed. Stites’s fingernails were cut, making it impossible to recover DNA evidence left after a struggle — something a cop would know to do to avoid suspicion. DNA evidence found at the crime scene was linked to two of Fennell’s fellow officers, suggesting they were at the scene of a crime twenty-five miles away from Giddings.
Fennell had a history of violence, particularly against women. A fellow police officer says he heard Fennell brag that he would strangle his girlfriend with a belt if he ever found out she was unfaithful. The same officer witnessed Fennell acting abusively toward Stacey. A later girlfriend of Fennell described him as racist, controlling, and abusive. A recent affidavit from a different law enforcement officer claims that Fennell stood near Stacey’s coffin at her funeral and muttered, “You got what you deserved.”
More than a decade after Stites’s murder, Fennell pled guilty and spent ten years in prison for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a young woman he detained while on patrol. Investigators looking into that crime say they uncovered a pattern of Fennell sexually assaulting women he detained, though he was only charged in that one case.
With all this overwhelming evidence pointing to Reed’s innocence, why is he still on death row and facing an execution date? The answer is that much of the evidence has never been heard by a jury.
In his original trial, some of this evidence existed but was never turned over to Reed’s lawyers. Other pieces, like the forensic evidence that tied the crime to the early morning hours, were falsely presented at the trial; it took some years for the prosecution witnesses to recant their statements.
More evidence keeps coming out. The latest instance is a former prisoner who served time with Fennell when he was behind bars for kidnapping and rape — he has signed an affidavit saying he heard Fennell brag about murdering Stites.
But prosecutors have successfully avoided every effort by Reed’s lawyers to get a new trial or even carry out further DNA testing. There are other pieces of evidence in law enforcement’s possession that have never been tested — including, incredibly, the belt used to murder Stites. Reed’s current lawyers from the Innocence Project have said their office will cover the cost of testing, but the courts have refused.
Reed, his family, anti–death penalty activists, and a growing number of concerned people around the country — more than 2 million people have signed an online petition calling for a new trial — have a simple question: If the state of Texas is so sure Reed is guilty, why won’t it agree to a new trial where a jury can look at all the evidence? Why won’t it allow DNA testing?
But this refusal to hear the pleas of innocence from prisoners is standard operating procedure for the criminal justice system — a system that would rather allow an innocent person to go to their death than admit that a terrible error has been made. We’ve seen this happen all too often in Texas alone with the executions of Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham), Frances Newton, Carlos DeLuna, and Cameron Todd Willingham, to name just a few.
National and International Support
The activists who have been organizing support for Reed over many years understand the odds they face today with an execution date set. Roderick Reed, Rodney’s brother, told Amy Goodman in a recent interview on Democracy Now! that thinking of all the innocent people who have been executed makes him very nervous. But Reed’s case is finally getting the national attention it deserves.
A number of celebrities have called for justice, including Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian, and Dr. Phil, who videotaped an interview with Reed and aired it on his show. Beyoncé, Cardi B, and Meek Mill have also reached out to their millions of followers, helping to widen the attention Reed is getting. Writer and activist Shaun King participated in a demonstration for Reed in Austin last Saturday that drew one of the largest protest crowds in recent years.
Forty-two Texas legislators, including Democrats and Republicans, sent letters to both Governor Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, urging them to investigate new evidence in the Reed case and consider clemency. Thousands of letters have been mailed to the governor and the pardons board, and there is the massive show of support for Reed online.
So the question is: Can Abbott and the board still deny Reed justice?
Vigils are planned in several cities on November 14. Roderick Reed and his wife, Wana, will be making the journey from Texas to Washington, DC, to be a part of the event there, on the eve of a US Supreme Court hearing about Reed’s case.
Most of the attention now is on Abbott and the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Abbott can only issue a thirty-day reprieve for Reed unless the board — whose members he appointed — grants clemency. In that case, Abbott could either commute Reed’s sentence or pardon him. Other legal avenues include a federal civil rights suit to secure DNA testing — a tactic that has been successful in the past — and a further appeal to the Supreme Court, which investigative reporter Jordan Smith, who has written extensively on Reed’s case over the years, calls a “relative long shot.”
Everyone sees the larger issues of injustice coming into play. According to organizer Lily Hughes, at last weekend’s rally in Austin, “everyone was talking about how the fight is not just about Rodney, but the wider issues of racism and injustice in our criminal justice system. This is putting the spotlight on how wrong the death penalty is and why we should get rid of it.”
Among the activists organizing for Reed are former prisoners like Mark Clements, who was incarcerated for twenty-eight years in Illinois for a crime he did not commit after being tortured by Chicago police. Clements has made his way from Chicago to be part of the struggle in Texas. “I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else,” he said.
The flaws of the Texas criminal justice system run deep and wide. Sadly, another death row prisoner, Jeff Wood — who was convicted under Texas’s notorious “law of parties” that allows for someone to be sentenced to death even if they weren’t found guilty of killing someone — just lost his latest appeal.
Sandra Reed is Rodney’s mother, and she’s spoken out for all of the twenty-two years that Reed has been incarcerated. Early on, she wanted to proclaim her son’s innocence to the world, so she put a banner across the front of her house reading: “Innocent Man on Death Row, Free Rodney Reed.” At last Saturday’s rally, she said, “I heard Governor Abbott is a good man. Well, I say actions speak louder than words. Show me and the world just how good a man you are.”
Sandra and all the other death penalty abolitionists following in the footsteps of Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks know that pulling justice out of the hands of our warped, racist, barbaric justice system is never easy. But they are pulling hard.