Photo: Rodney Reed. Credit: freerodneyreed.com
The decades-long struggle to free Rodney Reed from Texas death row suffered a major setback on Oct. 31 when a district judge denied Reed’s right to a new trial. This sends the case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which could clear the way for a new execution date to be set. Reed’s case has been at the forefront of the movement to abolish the death penalty since his conviction in 1998, and activists are determined to continue the fight despite this development.
Reed’s conviction based on faulty evidence
Reed’s conviction in 1998 is a textbook case of racism, bias, and corruption within the U.S. legal system. Reed, a Black man, was convicted in 1998 by an all-white jury in Bastrop, Texas, for the rape and murder of Stacey Stites, a white woman. Since then, new evidence has come to light exonerating Reed and pointing to the guilt of her fiancé, an abusive police officer named Jimmy Fennell. In the decades since the conviction, the forensic experts whose testimony was used to convict Reed have admitted to countless errors, and numerous witnesses have come forward with evidence pointing to Fennell.
Stites’ body was found in Fennell’s truck just hours after she failed to show up to work. The weapon that was used to strangle her, a belt, was never tested for DNA evidence. The framing of Rodney Reed began a year later based solely on the presence of Reed’s semen inside of Stites. However, both Reed and friends of Stites maintained that the two had a casual relationship and met regularly. A number of witnesses have come forward with evidence supporting this, including one of Stacey Stites’ coworkers, who testified that Stites introduced Reed to her as a “good friend” and that she was “flirty with him.”
Weeks before she was found dead, Stites confided to a coworker that she had been having an affair with a Black man named Rodney and had to “be careful.” She indicated that she was worried about what would happen if Fennell found out.
Evidence exonerates Reed, points to Jimmy Fennell
Fennell has a history of racism, violence and rape. A month prior to Stites’ murder, he was sued for an incident in which he allegedly threatened a man during a traffic stop while holding a loaded gun to his head. Three months after the murder, he was accused of stalking and harassing another woman. While on duty in 2007, Fennell responded to a domestic disturbance call by kidnapping and brutally raping the victim who had called the police for help. He pled guilty in 2008 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Since then, more evidence has emerged implicating him in the killing of Stites:
- While in prison, Fennell sought protection from the Aryan Brotherhood white supremacist prison gang. According to one of its members, Fennell bragged about murdering Stites while using racial slurs.
- Forensic experts have testified that Stites’ time of death was much earlier than the official record stated, which was based entirely on the word of Jimmy Fennell. At her actual time of death, she would have been alone with Fennell in the apartment they shared together.
- Fennell failed two polygraphs when asked about being connected to his fiancée’s murder, had no alibi for himself at the time of the killing and quickly sold the truck where Stites was found, preventing DNA testing of the truck’s components.
The Giddings Police Department and legal system not only failed to intervene in the sale of the truck or properly investigate the crime — they may have even aided a cover-up, based on DNA evidence found at the crime scene. DNA matching two Giddings police officers was found on two beer cans near the body. 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. To this day, most of the evidence exonerating Reed and pointing to the guilt of Fennell has never been heard by a jury.
The people demand, ‘Free Rodney Reed!‘
The state of Texas has come alarmingly close to putting Reed to death by lethal injection before. He was previously scheduled to be executed on Nov. 20, 2019, but a massive movement, including thousands of people marching in the streets of Austin, delayed this action. Since then, the Reed Justice Initiative, organized by his family, has inspired relentless protest to save Reed’s life. At a large protest held on July 17, Stites’ cousin, Heather Stobbs, took to the microphone to speak about the need for a new trial:
“I remember the day I saw that [Jimmy Fennell] had been arrested in the newspaper and yelling to my husband and saying, ‘Jimmy Fennell’s in the newspaper for abusing someone that was in his custody. I knew he did it!’ And so I started really looking into the just awful, ridiculously lazy work that the law enforcement officers did. If you can’t climb a set of steps to look in the apartment where my cousin was last known to be alive, then you shouldn’t be in law enforcement. … My cousin was a victim of domestic violence and for years that lousy, violent son of a bitch [Fennell] has been walking these streets except for those ten years he served in prison as well he should have.”
The case now heads to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
By incarcerating and threatening to kill Rodney Reed, the U.S. “justice” system has committed a terrible injustice. The case is part of a larger problem of institutional racism inherent in the application of the death penalty in the United States. Even though Black people comprise 50 percent of all homicide victims nationally, 80 percent of the people executed on death row in 2019 were convicted of a crime against a white person. Of the 185 people who have been exonerated from death row since 1973, over half of them have been Black. Countless more people are still sitting behind bars and on death row for crimes they did not commit, due to the zealous, racist nature of the U.S. policing and legal system.
The recommendation signed by Judge J.D. Langley stated that Reed, “has not proven by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted him of capital murder.” This is blatantly absurd. Even members of the original jury that sentenced Reed now question his guilt.
Langley completely discounted the testimony of 17 witnesses who provided evidence that supported Reed’s innocence and implicated someone else entirely for the crime for which Reed was convicted.
The judicial system of the United States is not an impartial system bestowed onto us from on high. It is inherently political and biased toward the racist status quo, as we are seeing in the Kyle Rittenhouse case. It has taken a mobilized people’s movement, tireless advocacy, and national visibility to keep Rodney Reed from being executed. We need a movement strong enough not just to stay his execution, but to reverse his conviction and put the real killer behind bars. Free Rodney Reed, and end the racist death penalty once and for all!