On Saturday, November 9, over a thousand people gathered at the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, Texas to demand that governor Greg Abbott free death row inmate Rodney Reed. Reed is scheduled to be executed on November 20.
Speakers included Shaun King, civil rights attorney Lee Merritt, Austin mayor Steve Adler, exonerated death row prisoners from across the country, medical examiners and former detectives who have examined the case, and Robert Muhammad, leader of the Austin Nation of Islam. Rodney’s brother Rodrick and mother Sandra – as well as a family member of the victim in the murder case that sparked the protest – also spoke in defense of his innocence.
Chants of “Free Rodney Reed!” and “Test the DNA!” broke out in between speakers and through an unscheduled march around the block, bringing the message of the Reed family to the streets of Austin.
A racist frame-up
Rodney Reed is a Black man convicted in 1998 by an all-white jury in Bastrop County, TX, for the murder of Stacey Stites. Since the trial, much evidence has come to light exonerating Reed and pointing toward the guilt of Stites’ fiancee, a corrupt cop named Jimmy Fennell.
Fennell has a well-documented history of violent, racist, misogynist, and threatening behavior. One month before Stites’ murder, Fennell and the Giddings Police Department were being sued for an incident in which Fennell allegedly held a loaded gun to a man’s head and threatened his life during a routine traffic stop. During police training, Fennell boasted that he would kill his fiancee if he ever discovered her cheating on him. The next woman he dated after Stites’ death, just 3 months later, claimed that Fennell stalked her after they broke up and used his position as a cop to pull over and harass her future boyfriends. Finally, Fennell was convicted in 2007 for raping a woman while on duty, for which he served a 10-year sentence.
Problems with the murder investigation also point not just to Fennell’s guilt, but to a possible cover-up by investigators, prosecutors, and the police department. DNA evidence matching two police officers was found on two beer cans near Stites’ body. Stites’ fingernails had been clipped, a common tactic to conceal evidence that Fennell would have known. Fennell surreptitiously closed a joint bank account that he shared with Stites the morning of her disappearance. The lead investigator on the case never searched Stites’ and Fennel’s shared apartment, nor did he test the bodily fluids found in Fennell’s truck, which were consistent with the moving of a body.
Nationally renowned medical examiners who have looked at the Stites murder case, such as Michael Baden, have since testified that the forensic evidence shows Stites was killed long before the official time of death. The original time of death was based entirely on a statement by Fennell himself. Baden and other examiners’ forensic examination puts Stites’ time of death at well before midnight, when Stites would have been alone in the apartment with Fennell, by his own admission.
The case against Reed is built on Fennell’s testimony, and on the presence of Reed’s DNA in Stites. There is no physical evidence linking Reed to the murder. There is also no forensic evidence to show that Stites was sexually assaulted, by Reed or by anyone, at the time of death. Reed maintains that their relationship was consensual, a claim that has since been acknowledged by 20 people who knew Reed and Stites. Many of Stites’ own relatives believe Fennell killed her in an act of jealous rage.
Most of the evidence exonerating Reed was never heard by the jury. Much of it was never even provided to the defense. In spite of overwhelming new evidence and witness testimony, as well as the apparent withholding of exonerating evidence by the prosecution, Texas courts have refused to grant Reed a new trial. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals determined that Reed’s lawyers failed to prove that no jury could find him not guilty. This is an especially egregious claim, since some of the original jurors on the case have come forward to express their own doubt about Reed’s guilt.
A people’s movement emerges to save Reed’s life
In the 23 years since Rodney was accused, the Reed family has worked tirelessly to build awareness and free him. The protest was the latest in a series of legal actions, demonstrations, national media appearances, and petitions to force the state of Texas to back down on its pending execution of Reed.
Much of Reed’s time on death row has been in solitary confinement, which is recognized by advocacy groups and many UN officials as a form of torture.
“It’s been a 23-year nightmare that we have not been able to wake up from,” said Rodrick Reed at the demonstration. “But now, it’s time for us to wake up. It’s time for our family to be whole again.”
As the execution date moves closer, public visibility of this injustice has increased exponentially. Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian-West, Dr. Phil, Rihanna, Questlove, LL Cool J, and Oprah have used their platform to pressure the governor to stop the execution. Community groups have mobilized in defense of Reed. Even many political candidates and legislators in this so-called “red state” are speaking up for Rodney.
The campaign has gained so much traction that the Reed family has formed the Reed Justice Initiative to campaign for abolishing the death penalty altogether.
“Amazingly enough, Donald Trump and the Pope is probably the only people that haven’t signed on yet,” said Rodrick.
“But give it a minute. God is good.”