Don’t let Texas execute another innocent man
ON HIS first full day in office, newly inaugurated Texas Gov. Greg Abbott oversaw his first execution: Arnold Prieto was put to death by the state of Texas on January 21. Just one week later, Texas went forward with the execution of Robert Ladd, a man with known intellectual disabilities. Another ten executions are scheduled in Texas before June of this year.
Abbott is an enthusiastic supporter of the death penalty, like his predecessors George W. Bush and Rick Perry. During Bush and Perry's combined 20-year tenure, 431 men and women were killed by lethal injection. This is despite the highly publicized scandals concerning the execution of people who were likely innocent, such as Cameron Todd Willingham, Ruben Cantu and Carlos DeLuna.
Now, another high-profile case of innocence is making headlines in Texas: that of Rodney Reed, who is scheduled for execution on March 5. A thorough re-examination of the evidence in the case--including a review of medical evidence and witness statements, and extensive DNA testing--is necessary so that Rodney's innocence can be proven and the true perpetrator of Stacey Stites' murder can be uncovered.
IN 1998, Rodney Reed was convicted by an all-white jury in Bastrop, Texas, of the murder of Stacey Stites. Although prosecutors connected Rodney to the murder through semen DNA evidence, no other evidence linked him to the crime. Rodney, who is Black, has maintained that he and Stacey, a white woman, were having an affair, which accounted for the presence of his DNA.
Stacey's body was found on the morning of April 23, 1996, on a lonely stretch of road in Bastrop County. She was strangled with a belt--pieces of which were found near her body and also near her truck, which had been abandoned at a nearby high school. A year later, Rodney was arrested and charged with her murder.
Rodney's trial was marked by a combination of inadequate representation and prosecutorial misconduct, including contradictory eyewitness testimony that wasn't revealed to the defense, the presentation of false testimony about medical evidence, and the failure of Reed's lawyers to call either an alibi witness or the multiple witnesses who could have testified to the affair between Stacey and Rodney.
Over the intervening years, evidence of Rodney's innocence has continued to emerge--as well as evidence that points to Stacey's then-fiancée and former Giddings, Texas, police officer Jimmy Fennell, Jr. as the perpetrator of the murder.
Fennell was the initial suspect in the crime and failed two polygraph tests on the question of whether he had strangled Stites, although the test results weren't admissible in court. Witness testimony and DNA evidence collected from beer cans at the crime scene also point to the involvement of other local police officers, associates of Fennell, in covering up the crime.
Fennell and Stites' apartment--the last place she was known to be alive--was never searched, and the truck that Stacey was driving was returned within days of the murder, before a full forensics analysis was completed, to Fennell, who promptly sold it.
At special evidentiary hearings that took place in 2006, a witness testified to seeing Fennell and Stites together the morning she was murdered. Another witness testified that while attending a police academy class with Fennell, she overheard him discussing how he would kill his girlfriend if he caught her cheating--and that he would strangle her with a leather belt to avoid leaving fingerprints.
Fennell is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for raping a woman in 2007 who was in his custody while a police officer in Georgetown, Texas.
AT RODNEY'S trial, the medical examiner, Roberto Bayardo, testified that the semen found in Stites' body could not be more than 24 hours old, a claim that fit the prosecution's timeline of how Stites was murdered. But this conclusion isn't scientifically accurate, as semen can remain in a body for several weeks. Bayardo recently signed an affidavit admitting as much, as well as discussing other parts of his autopsy findings that were misinterpreted by the prosecution.
In 2013, the Texas legislature passed a law intended to provide habeas corpus relief in a case where a conviction based on testimony provided at trial by an expert witness is later changed by that witness.
In a recent decision testing the new law, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals voted to set aside a murder conviction, saying, "Article 11.073 provides a new legal basis for habeas relief in the small number of cases where the applicant can show by the preponderance of the evidence that he or she would not have been convicted if the newly available scientific evidence had been presented at trial."
In addition, Rodney has been pursuing new DNA testing on several crucial items from the crime scene that have never been tested--including the belt with which Stacey was strangled.
But at a recent hearing, Judge Doug Shaver sided with the state in denying Rodney's motion requesting the new and expansive DNA testing. The callous ruling came despite Rodney's defense team calling two expert witnesses, including a forensic expert who testified that with current advanced testing methods, these items would surely contain significant DNA evidence.
Rodney's lead attorney Bryce Benjet says that this kind post-conviction testing is not unreasonable and is actually becoming the new standard of law in capital appeals. Benjet said during the hearing that Texas should "apply the best science to this case and determine what happened."
If conducted, these tests could very well prove Rodney's innocence. New laws expanding access to DNA testing in Texas were passed 2011 and 2013, addressing the importance of both pre- and post-conviction DNA testing.
In 2013, Abbott, who was then Texas' attorney general, supported a bill for pre-conviction DNA testing, saying, "Texans may disagree about the death penalty, but one thing all Texans can and should agree upon is that no innocent person should be executed in Texas."
NOW RODNEY'S family and supporters are asking Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) to stand by those words. They want state officials to not only spare Rodney's life, but work to ensure that all the DNA is tested and the evidence examined again, either through new hearings or a new trial.
The planned state murder of Rodney Reed comes at time when people around the country are taking to the streets to protest police violence aimed disproportionately at people of color. Rodney's supporters and family believe his case also belongs to the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the recent court hearing in Bastrop, protesters in support of Rodney carried signs saying "No more racist executions--in the streets or in the death house!" They talked about the planned execution of Rodney as "Ferguson in slow motion" and compared the racial bias of the death penalty to the spate of killings of unarmed Black men by police.
In a recent interview for the New Abolitionist, Rodney's mother Sandra reflected on this issue:
This proved to me that the United States has defrauded all of us. They painted this so-called justice system with rose colors and made us think that we would get a fair shake... Looking back at Martin Luther King, how he fought for our rights--well, I thought we had our rights! But I realize now that we don't. We never had equality.
In an appeal directly to Governor Abbott, Sandra stated, "We just want the DNA tested. We want the truth. That's all we're asking."
Rodney's brother Rodrick added: "We just want to be treated the way he would want his own treated. We want the same thing he would expect if he were in our shoes."
With that in mind, activists are gearing up for a loud and visible campaign to save Rodney's life. Already, almost 15,000 people have signed an online petition supporting Rodney. His case has been the subject of national media coverage and will be featured on an A&E special in mid-February. Activists around the country have been hosting screenings of the documentary State vs. Reed, and abolitionists as far away as Germany have called for a rally to support Rodney.
Rodney's supporters have launched a campaign to win clemency, which will include collecting as many clemency letters as possible, including appeals from high-profile figures.
And activists in Texas are planning a series of events aimed at the governor and the parole board, including a large rally on February 21 outside the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas, preceded by a National Day of Action on February 20, when people all over the world will contact the governor and the parole board to ask for clemency and demand: Justice for Rodney Reed!