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Rodney Reed and Texas’ Troubling Reliance on the Death Penalty

A court ruling this week sets up yet another high profile showdown over Texas’ use of the ultimate punishment.

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Two years ago, Rodney Reed’s impending execution sparked international outrage, prompting widespread calls for reprieve from people ranging from Beyoncé to Ted Cruz. In November 2019, a last-minute court ruling halted Reed’s execution five days before he was scheduled to die. This week, however, a judge dismissed his claims of innocence and rejected his request for a new trial, setting up yet another high profile showdown over Texas’ death penalty. 

As Reed’s case continues to wind through the court system, it underlines troubling questions about Texas’ continued use of the death penalty, even as most of the country has turned away from executions. Reed’s attorneys and supporters have pointed to a flood of new evidence that has emerged since he was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1996 rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop. Over the past two decades, reporters, forensic experts, independent investigators, and lawyers have largely undermined the state’s case against Reed while pointing the finger at Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a former police officer who was convicted of kidnapping and raping a woman while on duty years after Stites was killed. This summer, Reed’s attorneys brought more than a dozen new witnesses in a two-week evidentiary hearing before state district judge J.D. Langley. In a 50-page ruling issued Monday, Langley sided with the state, calling Fennell’s testimony in the case credible and saying the courts have repeatedly considered Reed’s claims of innocence “and found them wanting.”  

Reed’s supporters insist that his case underscores larger problems of racial bias in the death penalty. Reed, who is Black, and Stites, who was white, were having an affair around the time of her death, according to Reed and others who testified at his evidentiary hearing. People who knew Fennell have testified and filed affidavits in court alleging that he was violent, controlling, and had threatened to hurt Stites, while also accusing him of using racial slurs and being “extremely prejudiced” against Black people. Reed’s family has called his conviction and death sentence by an all-white jury the result of a “Jim Crow trial.” Some in the media have tied the case to the legacy of racial terror lynchings in the south.

In 2019, the last time Reed was set to die, he was one of two people scheduled for execution in Texas that year who had strong innocence claims. Two others scheduled for execution the same year didn’t kill anyone but were sentenced to die under the state’s controversial “law of parties,” which allows for people to be charged for conduct by co-conspirators during a crime. Eight others scheduled for lethal injection that year had histories of intellectual impairments, brain damage, mental illness, or chronic trauma, according to an analysis by the Death Penalty Information Center. The organization wrote that the cases, all in Texas, 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 and prisoners who were provided the worst legal process.” 

Reed’s case now heads to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, which could either disagree with Langley’s findings or affirm them and clear the way for another execution date. “If a new jury heard the overwhelming evidence of Rodney Reed’s innocence, it would have reasonable doubts,” said Jane Pucher, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project who is representing Reed. “We hope the Court of Criminal Appeals recognizes that he should be given a new trial.” 

Debra Oliver, Stites’ sister, issued a statement praising the judge’s ruling, and adding that her sister’s memory “has been lost in the unnecessary circus that has been created around this very open and shut case.”

The erosion of confidence in Reed’s guilt over the past two decades points to a growing distrust in the ultimate punishment. Prosecutors’ case against Reed contained many of the red flags that are often hallmarks of wrongful convictions, from police tunnel vision that focused on Reed to the exclusion of other suspects like Fennell, to now-discredited forensic testimony. Ahead of Reed’s last date with death, hundreds of people rallied with his family outside the governor’s mansion in downtown Austin, asking Governor Greg Abbott to spare his life while invoking the names of people like Carlos DeLuna and Cameron Todd Willingham, men Texas executed for crimes that it appears they did not commit.

“There are many other Rodney Reeds out there,” Roderick Reed, Rodney’s younger brother, said during the rally two years ago. “We’re not the only ones that have been put through this.”

Top image: Supporters rally to stop the execution of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed outside the governor’s mansion in Austin on November 9, 2019.