Everything is bigger in Texas, including the state’s death toll. It is well-known that Texas has executed hundreds more than any other state, and openly executes the mentally ill. Advocacy groups have documented the many cases of wrongful executions in Texas, as well as wrongful convictions that have been proven through exonerating DNA testing (though typically only after the exoneree has been waiting for a decade on death row). Relevant for the Black Lives Matter movement is that the Texas death penalty regime is incredibly racist — while black people are only 12 percent of the state’s population, they are over 40 percent of the executed. This will come to a head on March 5, when Texas plans to execute an innocent black man named Rodney Reed.
In 1998, Reed was convicted by an all-white Bastrop jury for the murder of Stacey Stites. Following DNA testing which found Reed’s semen inside Stites, the prosecution argued that Reed had raped and murdered her. Reed (as well as many eyewitnesses) maintained that they were having a consensual affair, which was kept secret because Stites’ then-fiance was police officer Jimmy Fennell — he also maintained that a black man was dating a white woman who was engaged to a white officer would be incredibly scandalous and dangerous if revealed. In 2012, the medical examiner who originally testified about the DNA came forward and challenged this link, saying that the decaying state of the semen implied it had been deposited well before the time that the prosecution alleges the crime was committed, fitting the defense’s version of events. The prosecution has not offered any other evidence to link Reed to the crime.
There is, however, ample evidence to link Fennell to the crime. Fennell was found to be deceptive on two polygraph tests when asked if he had murdered Stites and could not prove his whereabouts at the time of the crime. Stites had been found on the side of a road, dumped from a truck that belonged to Fennell. Beer cans found near Stites’ body contained the DNA of Fennell’s neighbor and close friend. In the medical examiner’s 2012 declaration, he also stated that it appeared Stites had been sodomized by “a rod-like instrument, such as a police baton.”
In 1995, Fennell was quoted by another officer as saying that if he caught Stites cheating, he would strangle her with a belt to avoid leaving fingerprints — this is how Stites was killed. As detailed by The Intercept, Fennell has a history of misogynistic violence, having harassed and stalked multiple ex-girlfriends and innocent women. He is currently serving a prison sentence for raping a woman while on duty and threatening to kill her if she reported him. This woman and nearly a dozen of Stites’ relatives have spoken up in defense of Reed and implicated Fennell as the real killer.
There is also ample evidence of New Jim Crow racism by the state: a police cover-up, inadequate defense and prosecutorial misconduct.
First, the cover-up. The polygraphs that Fennell failed were in late 1996, while Reed wasn’t charged due to the DNA match until April 1997. In the intervening time, Fennell was not and still has not been treated as a real suspect — his apartment (the last place Stites was seen alive) was not searched; his truck (which Stites was dumped out of) was released to and promptly sold by Fennell, meaning a third party (such as Reed’s defense) could never confirm its contents or test any DNA; the crime scene and important evidence were purposefully contaminated by police investigators; the friend of Fennell’s, whose DNA was found near Stites’ body, was also a police officer; and the police decided to officially dismiss Fennell as a suspect, stating that it would be logistically impossible for Fennell to have committed the crime, even though this depended on the baseless assumption that Fennell acted alone.
Next, Reed’s defense was clearly inadequate — the court-appointed lawyers only called two of Reed’s many willing witnesses and did not counter the prosecution’s original medical testimony (from the examiner who later recanted his incrimination of Reed) with its own medical examiner.
Finally, the immense prosecutorial misconduct amounts to a cover-up in its own right. The prosecution withheld the crime scene DNA evidence from the defense, suppressed witness testimony that Fennell and Stites were arguing loudly the day before her death, suppressed Fennell’s 1995 statement about strangling Stites if she was found cheating and used racist smears against Reed to sway the all-white jury, portraying him as a criminal for whom “it was inevitable that we would be here at some point.”
Reed’s mother, Sandra Reed, has bravely fought for her son while enduring this injustice — the courts, meanwhile, continue to reject potentially exonerating DNA testing. She reflected with The New Abolitionist about her experience, anticipating the Black Lives Matter movement: “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.”
Those who are interested in getting involved in this struggle and preventing the imminent execution can join Reed’s family at upcoming events, which can be found at justice4rodneyreed.org.
Rathi is a computer science honors junior from Austin.