Rodney Reed’s Appeal Denied, but the Fight Continues

Credit: KXAN
Sandra Reed speaks out for her son.
By: Matt Korn

Yet again, the State of Texas is coming close to executing an innocent man. Rodney Reed, who has been on Texas’ death row since 1998, was denied an appeal to the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in January, clearing the way for the courts to issue a death warrant. Reed was convicted in Bastrop, TX of the rape and murder of Stacey Stites, the fiancée of Jimmy Fennell Jr., a police officer in nearby Giddings, TX.

Reed, who is Black, and Stites, who was white, had been having a sexual relationship unknown to Fennel, a jealous and violent cop who is currently serving a 10 year sentence for raping a woman while she was in his custody.

Fennel’s violent past is not the only reason why Reed’s supporters believe he is innocent, and that Fennel is a far more likely suspect. Reed’s appeal to the 5th Circuit was based on a number of claims, including ineffective counsel and actual innocence. Reed and Stites had been having a consensual sexual relationship, a fact well-known in the community and attested to by numerous witnesses.  

The State’s central piece of evidence: semen belonging to Reed that was found inside Stites’ body, and prosecutors claimed it could not have been deposited more than 24 hours earlier. This “temporal link” was a crucial part of the State’s case against Reed, but it was based on such flimsy evidence that even the Travis County Medical Examiner, Dr. Roberto Bayardo, now believes that intercourse must have happened at least 24 hours before her death, fitting the scenario of a consensual relationship between Reed and Stites.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of evidence to show that Reed is innocent. DNA evidence found on beer cans at the scene of the crime matched another police officer David Hall, who was a good friend of Jimmy Fennel. This evidence was never handed over to the defense and so the jury never heard it. 

Fennell was originally the prime suspect in the case, and he failed a polygraph test twice on the question “Did you strangle Stacey Stites?” A witness saw Fennell and Stites together on the morning of the murder, and numerous witnesses shared with prosecutors at the time of trial their knowledge of Fennell’s violent past, which was confirmed by his current incarceration for rape. And as with many other death penalty cases nationwide, Reed faced an all-white jury at his trial.

The news has devastated Reed’s family and supporters. “I’m in shock that they can deny Rodney, with overwhelming evidence, a new trial,” says Sandra Reed, Rodney’s mother and a long-time anti-death penalty activist. She said that the witnesses to Rodney and Stites’ relationship were deemed non-credible by the appeals courts because they were close family or had criminal backgrounds. But she also said that Ms. Kay, a well-respected bail bondswoman in Bastrop, filed an affidavit attesting to the relationship.

The court’s response was to issue a gag order to Sandra Reed and Ms. Kay, disallowing them from making statements in the trial or to the media about the case. “How can you say he did and put me in a position where I can’t say he didn’t?” asked Sandra Reed.

Despite this setback, the Reed family is finding lots of support from fellow anti-death penalty activists. Delia Perez Meyer, the sister of Louis Castro Perez, another man wrongfully incarcerated on Texas’ death row, says she and other death row families also make a “strong family of abolitionists…. Sandra has been so strong for the last 15 years, ever since Rodney and my brother Louis went to death row.”

Meyer praised activists for mobilizing within 24 hours of the 5th Circuit’s decision, and has high hopes for the potential to stop Rodney’s execution and to abolish the death penalty overall. “They’re making a huge mistake…the death penalty is coming unglued” she said, adding that more and more people are having their convictions overturned and that widespread police and prosecutorial abuses are coming to light. She also noted that one 5th Circuit Court judge who was on her brother’s review panel, Edith Jones, is under a rare misconduct review for unbelievably racist statements she made during a University of Pennsylvania Law School lecture.

Meanwhile, Rodney Reed’s supporters have vowed they will never give up the fight to save Rodney and end the racist death penalty. “Now is the time for folks to get involved…we will be launching a campaign to fight against any execution date that is set” said Lily Hughes, National Director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

Activists are drawing from the successful 2007 campaign to stop the execution of Kenneth Foster, Jr. They are ramping up a multi-pronged campaign that includes petitioning, street protests, clemency letters to the Governor, and other strategies intended to shame the courts and elected officials into using their power to stop Rodney’s execution. “[For Rodney] all we’re looking for is fairness…let the truth come out in a new trial,” said Sandra Reed, but she added that “the death penalty must go, I will continue regardless. So many people have been killed, and I don’t want their deaths to be in vain.”