Texas court rejects appeal for Rodney Reed

January 12, 2009

Bryan McCann reports on the latest injustice in the case of Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed.

TEXAS DEATH row inmate Rodney Reed and his family received another slap in the face from the nation's execution capital.

In a unanimous decision announced last month, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Reed's petition for a new trial, claiming that evidence suppressed by the state of Texas would not have swayed a jury to acquit Reed.

The court's decision flies in the face of startling facts that point to a sinister web of police corruption, prosecutorial misconduct and Jim Crow style racism.

Rodney has been on Texas' death row since 1998 for the 1996 strangulation murder of Stacey Stites, a resident of Giddings, Texas. He was convicted on the basis of a semen DNA sample taken from Stites' body that matched Reed. However, Reed claims that he and Stacey were engaged in a consensual relationship at the time of her death, which helps explain the presence of the DNA sample.

Several witnesses, most of whom were not called to testify at the original trial, corroborate this claim. Other area residents have since claimed that intimidation from law enforcement officials dissuaded them from speaking up about the affair.

Protesting for justice for Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed
Protesting for justice for Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed (Matt Beamesderfer | SW)

Far more evidence in the case suggests the involvement of Stites' fiancé at the time, Jimmy Fennell.

Fennell was a Giddings police officer known for his violent temper and racism. In a sworn affidavit, the woman Fennell began dating three months after Stacey's murder described him as "abusive, possessive, controlling and extremely prejudiced toward African-Americans." Fennell also failed two lie detector tests when asked if he murdered Stacey, and he promptly sold the truck Stites was driving the morning of her death after police investigators returned it to him.

More recently, Fennell was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for kidnapping and engaging in "improper sexual conduct" with a woman in his custody. This conviction came after he pleaded down from a sexual assault charge. Reed's supporters say that this helps confirm what they have been saying about Fennell all along.

Other than the semen sample containing Rodney's DNA, no physical evidence has ever linked Reed to the crime. In fact, another DNA sample found on a beer can at the scene of the murder matches a local police officer and close friend of Fennell's.

In spite of this evidence of innocence, the notoriously pro-prosecution Court of Criminal Appeals has seen fit to bring Rodney one step closer to the Texas death chamber.

As Rodney's lawyer, Bryce Benjet, told the Austin Chronicle, the court has rejected, all told, 15 credible witnesses for the defense, while wholeheartedly accepting the prosecution's version of events, which is based almost entirely on Fennell's account. Benjet perhaps puts it best in the Chronicle, writing, "Isn't it just possible that there is one person that isn't telling the truth--Jimmy Fennell, a rapist sitting in prison?"

The decision is obviously a stinging setback for the Reeds and their supporters. However, they are not backing down.

"We know that grassroots pressure can create change, even in a state like Texas," said Lily Hughes of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "Even this outrageous decision must not dissuade us from organizing around Rodney's case and raising public awareness about it."

At the root of Rodney's case are many of the problems that plague most death penalty cases. Rodney is an African American man convicted of raping and killing a white woman in the south. Indeed, the entire case represents the age-old racist taboos associated with interracial relationships.

Furthermore, Reed was too poor to hire a lawyer and had to rely on underqualified court-appointed attorneys, just like the majority of inmates on death row in the United States. Rodney's case highlights what is wrong with the entire death penalty, an archaic punishment that is racist, targets the poor, condemns the innocent to die, fails to deter crime, and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

The death penalty remains on the defensive in the United States, as more people then ever oppose it and growing numbers of states are considering abolition. It will take continued organizing around cases like Rodney Reed's to highlight just how rotten the death penalty is, as well as the entire criminal injustice system it represents.

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