The Movement to Free Rodney Reed Illustrates the Growing Unease Over Texas’ Use of the Death Penalty

Deafening calls to spare Rodney Reed’s life point to a larger distrust in Texas’ use of the death penalty and an erosion of confidence in the justice system that convicted him.

Gus Bova

Deafening calls to spare Rodney Reed’s life point to a larger distrust in Texas’ use of the death penalty and an erosion of confidence in the justice system that convicted him.

Gus Bova

After an hourslong rally outside the governor’s mansion in downtown Austin on Saturday, hundreds of people chanting “Free Rodney Reed” briefly blocked streets around the Texas Capitol in an impromptu march led by the brother of the man the state plans to execute on November 20. 

The crowd that gathered on Governor Greg Abbott’s doorstep represents just a sliver of the growing outcry over Reed’s pending execution for the 1996 rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop. Since Reed’s conviction in 1998, a flood of new evidence has called his guilt into question and drawn enormous attention to the case—most recently from syndicated daytime talk show host “Dr. Phil” McGraw, who gave Reed’s innocence claim a major signal boost in a two-part series that aired last month. The widespread calls for officials to stop, or at the very least delay, Reed’s execution now range from mega-celebrities like Beyoncé and Oprah to a bipartisan coalition of more than three dozen Texas lawmakers. Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King, who traveled to Austin to speak alongside Reed’s family at Saturday’s rally, started a petition last week imploring that Abbott halt the execution; it’s already gathered more than 2.5 million signatures. 

Over the past two decades, journalists, forensic pathologists, independent investigators, and attorneys with the Innocence Project have largely discredited the state’s case against Reed. That has included undermining the sole evidence linking him to the murder: sperm cells matching his DNA that were recovered from Stites’ body, which prosecutors used to bolster their timeline of her murder. Reed, who is black, and others have maintained that he and Stites, who was white, had a consensual affair. While Reed says he and Stites had sex two days before her body was found on the side of a country road, state witnesses told jurors that his DNA had to have been left just hours before her death. In the two decades since, however, a number of forensic experts have debunked that theory. The medical examiner who conducted Stites’ autopsy walked back his testimony, as did the employees of a state crime lab and a private DNA lab. 

Roderick Reed, the younger brother of Rodney Reed, leads protesters in a march.
Roderick Reed, the younger brother of Rodney Reed, leads protesters in a march.  Gus Bova

Reed’s attorneys point to another suspect: Stites’ fiancé Jimmy Fennell, a white cop with a history of violence and harassment against women. A decade after Reed’s conviction, Fennell pleaded guilty to kidnapping and improper sexual conduct with someone in custody after he picked up a woman while on duty, raped her at gunpoint, and then threatened to kill her if she told anyone. An affidavit by a woman Fennell dated months after Stites’ murder calls him “extremely prejudiced” against black people as well as “possessive and jealous,” saying he stalked her for months after she broke up with him. Reed’s appeals also include affidavits from at least two law enforcement officers who knew Fennell. The officers say Fennell told them things that have long made them question whether he was involved in Stites’ murder; one says Fennell groused about his fiancée “fucking a nigger” a month before her death, while the other claims he heard Fennell mutter “You got what you deserved” during Stites’ funeral while standing before her casket. 

The most incendiary allegation against Fennell came late last month in an affidavit filed with Reed’s petition to the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole. In it, a leader of the notorious Aryan Brotherhood prison gang claims Fennell came to him for protection after entering prison and bragged, “I had to kill my nigger-loving fiancé.” Fennell, who was released from prison last fall, has maintained his innocence. 

Beyond the specifics in Reed’s case, the erosion of confidence in his guilt and the deafening calls for a reprieve point to a larger distrust in Texas’ use of the death penalty and, more generally, in the justice system that convicted him. Protestors on Saturday shouted the names of Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna, men who appear to have been executed in Texas for crimes they didn’t commit. Others at the rally called Reed’s conviction, delivered by an all-white jury, the result of a “Jim Crow trial.”

The steady clip of executions in Texas every year stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the country, which has largely turned away from capital punishment. The Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks executions and public sentiment on the death penalty, analyzed the cases of Reed and 12 other Texas men scheduled for execution in the last half of 2019. The analysis raised “troubling questions as to whether the state is executing the most morally culpable individuals for the worst of the worst crimes, or the most vulnerable prisoners who were provided the worst legal process.” Robert Dunham, the group’s executive director, told me that Reed’s case has generated so much attention because it “has all the characteristics of what used to be lynchings. … This looks like an African American man is being railroaded to his death because of a consensual relationship with a white woman who was cheating on a dirty cop.” 

In one grotesque, neat package, Reed’s case highlights many of the red flags often present in wrongful convictions—from the tunnel vision of the initial police investigation to the discredited forensic testimony, appearance of racial bias, and judges who seem willing to ignore the mounting evidence of a rickety conviction. Elsa Alcala, who until last year sat on the state’s highest criminal court, told me Reed’s case is “a reflection of what I saw when I was on the Court of Criminal Appeals over and over again, where people who were being executed were people whose convictions had never really been contested either with good science or really extensive investigation and scrutiny into their guilt.” Last week Alcala sent a letter urging Abbott and the board of pardons and parole to stay Reed’s execution. 

Reed’s family also argues that his case is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems with the death penalty in Texas. “There are many other Rodney Reeds out there, we’re not the only ones that have been put through this,” Roderick Reed, Rodney’s younger brother, told me. 

While there are other legal irons in the fire, including a petition before the U.S. Supreme Court and a federal lawsuit to force DNA testing of a belt prosecutors alleged was used to strangle Stites, on Saturday Reed’s family and supporters appealed directly to Governor Abbott, who on his own has the power to delay the execution for 30 days. Near the end of the rally, before Roderick and his family led hundreds of marchers onto the streets in downtown Austin, Reed’s mother, Sandra, had a message for Abbott.

“I heard Governor Abbott is a good man. Well, I say actions speak louder than words,” she said. “Show me and the world just how good of a man you are. Take into consideration all of what you know, all of what you’ve seen. There are others that were before you that didn’t live up to their oath. Will you?”

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Michael Barajas is a staff writer covering civil rights for the Observer. You can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected].


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