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Texas' top court deliberates on appeal for a new trial
Rodney Reed's long struggle for justice

September 8, 2006 | Page 2

BRYAN McCANN reports on Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed's long struggle for justice.

IN THE coming weeks, Rodney Reed will learn whether justice long delayed is again justice denied. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) is considering whether Reed, an innocent man who has been on death row since 1998, should receive a new trial.

The CCA deliberations come on the heels of a recommendation by district court Judge Reva Towslee Corbett against a new trial for Reed. Corbett was ordered by the CCA to hold a hearing into Reed's appeal for a new trial--despite the fact that her father was the presiding judge at Rodney's original trial.

The CCA isn't technically bound by her recommendation, but activists fear it will weigh heavily in their final decision. This has given further sense of urgency to the grassroots mobilization around Rodney's case to demand that the CCA grant him a new trial.

Rodney Reed's case is a particularly sickening example of how rotten the Texas death penalty system is.

Reed was sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas. The only piece of evidence connecting Reed to Stites is a DNA sample taken from her body, which Rodney and his supporters say is evidence of a well-corroborated sexual relationship between the two.

At the time of the murder, Stites was engaged to Jimmy Fennell, a white local police officer. Fennell failed two lie detector tests in which he was asked, "Did you strangle Stacey Stites?"

Investigators never searched the apartment the couple shared, and police returned Fennell's truck, which Stacey was driving the day of the murder, before conducting a complete forensic analysis. Fingerprint dusting from the truck produced only two sets of prints--Fennell's and Stites'. Upon receiving the truck from police, Fennell immediately sold it.

Additionally, investigators found two beer cans at the scene of the crime containing the DNA of Giddings officer David Hall and Bastrop Police officer Ed Samela. Samela, three months into investigating the case, died of an alleged self-inflicted gunshot wound. The defense was never made aware of these findings.

Overall, the crime scene investigation was a fiasco. Stites' body was missing for two hours before arriving at the medical examiner's office. When it did show up, it had bruises and burns not present at the crime scene, according to photos.

Even more troubling than these extraordinary details are the facts that make Rodney's case anything but unique. Reed is an African American man from an economically disadvantaged background in a small Texas town with a deep history of racial tension.

His court-appointed defense team failed to call witnesses who would attest to the relationship between Reed and Stites, and provide an alibi for Rodney on the day of the murder. Nor did the defense call witnesses who saw Stites and Fennell together on the morning of the murder, and who heard Fennell threaten to strangle Stites with a belt if she ever cheated on him.

From the start, the Reed family has been determined to mobilize behind Rodney. Rodney's mother, Sandra, a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) national board of directors, has become an inspiration to abolitionists in Texas and beyond.

The case received a significant boost in visibility with the award-winning documentary State vs. Reed. Since the film's release, the CEDP has worked closely with the filmmakers to host public screenings that have served as fundraisers for the Reeds and helped to raise community awareness about Rodney's case and the Texas abolitionist movement as a whole.

The coming weeks will be decisive in putting pressure on the CCA. But regardless of what the court decides, the struggle will not end there. Activists are planning a rally on September 13, at which they will deliver signed petitions demanding a new trial for Rodney to the CCA.

The widespread publicity and energetic mobilization around Rodney's case will not only be instrumental in saving his life, but in helping to build a stronger abolitionist movement that can end the vile institution of capital punishment once and for all.

To show your support, sign an online petition for Rodney. For more information, read the Austin, Texas CEDP chapter's blog. Further information can be found at the CEDP's national Web site.

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