Still seeking justice for Rodney Reed

Cindy Beringer reports from Bastrop, Texas, as family and supporters of Rodney Reed carry on the struggle to save an innocent man from the execution machine.

Rodney Reed's family and supporters rally for justice in Bastrop (Randi Jones Hensley | SW)Rodney Reed's family and supporters rally for justice in Bastrop (Randi Jones Hensley | SW)

THE FAMILY and supporters of Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed left a July 24 rally at the Bastrop County Courthouse with buoyed hopes and renewed optimism that justice is possible for this innocent man.

The rally was called to protest a cruel court hearing held the previous week, where senior judge Doug Shaver didn't even pause after the prosecutor finished speaking before setting an execution date for Reed--even though the state has agree to some, though not all, of the defense's request for additional DNA testing. Shaver said there would be ample time to evaluate the evidence--and then not only set a January 14, 2015, execution date, but explained to Reed in painful detail the step-by-step process by which his death by lethal injection would occur.

At the rally the next week, Reed's supporters learned that eight retired federal and state judges--representing six states around the U.S., including Texas, and both the Republicans and Democrats--took the unusual step of filing a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court asking that Reed's appeal be heard.

According to the brief, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which denied an appeal by Reed in January, should have ordered a district judge to review Reed's claims--hearing live witnesses who were cross-examined by lawyers--but instead engaged in improper fact-finding based on a "cold record" of briefs and affidavits. "That is not how our system of justice is designed to operate," the judges argued. "When courts have only affidavits without witness testimony, they lack the means of testing the accuracy, reliability, competence, scientific acumen, proper training and judgment of the [person testifying]."

The brief filed by the eight retired judges was a clear slap in the face to the ancient "good ol' boy" system that has operated at its worst in this case, including the execution date set for an innocent. As the Campaign to End the Death Penalty said in a statement after the July 14 hearing:

While important evidence is being tested and interpreted, and while other testing is being considered, it is both irresponsible and cruel for the state to seek an execution date and for the warrant to be issued by any judge. This amounts to torture for both Rodney and his family, who now have to live under the threat of an specific execution date, even as Rodney's defense team and supporters fight to prove his innocence.

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FOR 17 years, Reed's family and supporters have fought Jim Crow justice and the results of one of the most botched and distorted trial and appeals process in the history of Texas--a state where there are many contenders for that dishonor.

Reed, who is Black, was convicted for the rape and murder of Stacey Stites, with whom he had had a consensual relationship, as many people in Bastrop knew.

There is strong evidence that Stites, who is white, was murdered by her fiancé, a Bastrop police officer, who is currently serving time for raping a woman while on duty. But the police never investigated the officer, Jimmy Fennell, who once told a fellow police trainee that he would strangle his girlfriend with a belt if he caught her cheating--which is how Stites died. At his trial, Reed faced an all-white jury, which voted to convict him.

After hearing from several speakers at the courthouse gazebo, the 40 or so demonstrators, hailing from Austin, Bastrop, Houston and even France, marched around the large courthouse grounds, chanting. The protesters then took the unprecedented step of marching through the streets of downtown Bastrop, not sure what to expect and hoping for the best.

Historic downtown Bastrop is about two blocks wide and four blocks long, mostly quaint stores and restaurants. It felt like an incongruous march through a John Wayne western movie, but as Rodney Reed's brother Roderick observed, we were the ones making history as our racially diverse parade shouted, "Death row, hell no!"

Our reception was heartwarming. People came out of stores and restaurants to show support and take pictures. One woman did a little dance on the street and raised her fist in support.

Throughout the years, more and more residents of Bastrop have joined our quest for justice for Rodney Reed. Among them are a cousin of the victim, Stacy Stites; a woman who saw the "Free Rodney Reed" sign in front of the Reed home, introduced herself to learn more and became a staunch supporter; and a material witness from Reed's trial who concluded that the prosecutor hadn't told her the truth.

It appears that in Bastrop, only the police and courts are holding firm to Jim Crow injustice--in the interests of protecting their own. With the help of eight retired judges and the growing list of Reed supporters, from Bastrop and beyond, who continue to fight for his freedom, we believe that justice will prevail'--and the judges and prosecutors and police will be exposed for the professional liars and racists that they are.