New trial for Rodney Reed!

By: Bryan McCann

Rodney Reed Demonstration The case of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed once again took center stage throughout Texas last month when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals heard his plea for a new trial on March 19. Rodney has been on Texas' death row since 1998 for the murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas.

Rodney's conviction rests on one specimen of semen DNA found on Stacey's body at the scene of the crime. However, a well-corroborated sexual relationship between Rodney and Stacey explains this seemingly damning piece of evidence. A number of individuals--ranging from Rodney's relatives to Stacey's coworkers--could attest to this affair, but most of them were either too afraid to speak up or were never called to the stand by Rodney's court-appointed lawyers.

Furthermore, videos of the crime scene investigation demonstrate the colossally unprofessional manner in which authorities handled the scene and Stacey's body.

Far more troubling, however, is the fact that the vast majority of evidence in the case points not to Rodney, but to a sinister police conspiracy--with Stacey's then-fiancé, Police Officer Jimmy Fennell, at the very center.

Fennell, whose reputation for jealousy and a violent temper is well established, failed two lie detector tests in which he was asked point-blank if he was responsible for Stacey's murder.

Fennell's pickup truck, which Stacey was driving the morning she was killed, contained only his and Stacey's fingerprints (prosecutors would later claim Rodney was able to clean only his fingerprints from the pickup). The truck was quickly turned over to Fennell without a thorough investigation. He sold it the very next day. Two beer cans found at the scene of Stacey's murder contained the DNA of two local police officers who were friends of Fennell.

More recently, Fennell, who relocated to the Austin suburb of Georgetown, was indicted on abduction and sexual assault charges for allegedly raping a woman in his custody. These allegations, if true, add credibility to what many have said about Fennell's character all along.

Though the evidence of Rodney's innocence seems overwhelming, the specter of racism looms large over this case. A case in which a Black man was having an affair with a white woman engaged to a white police officer in a small Texas town conjures up a whole sinister history of racist taboos.

Rodney's appeal is based on getting a new trial to hear evidence never before heard by a jury. This evidence includes the beer cans found at the crime scene, as well as unheard witness testimonies. One person saw Fennel and Stacey together the morning of her murder, though Fennel claimed he was asleep. Another witness who attended police training with Fennell recalls hearing him say he would strangle any woman he was dating with a belt if he learned she was cheating on him.

Upon learning that the Court of Criminal Appeals planned to hear Rodney's case for a new trial, the Austin chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) and the Reeds began setting things into motion.

In early February, a broad collation of activists led a march of about 75 people through downtown Austin and held an energetic rally afterward. On the eve of Rodney's March 19 date before the court, CEDP activists organized a national phone and fax jam aimed at making it clear we demanded nothing less than justice for Rodney. On the day of the hearing, activists stood outside the packed courtroom with signs and a banner for Rodney, while also engaging questions from media.

Though no members of the CEDP were able to enter the packed courtroom during the hearing, reports from those who were able to watch indicated that the judges asked a number of questions. Rodney's lawyers believe this is a good sign and indicates that the judges have not yet made up their minds. Though it did not come up explicitly at the hearing, the news of Fennell's indictment also loomed large. The court has no deadline for making a decision and will likely take several months.

As the Reeds and their allies continue to wait for the court to make their decision, the struggle continues. As Sandra Reed, Rodney's mother, said at a recent panel of death row mothers held by the Austin CEDP, "I will not stop fighting until we have proven my son's innocence and win his freedom. This is a broken, corrupt system, and the people have to confront it."

The Reed family will be the first to say that they are fighting for more than Rodney's life and freedom, but also for all those families whose lives have been shattered by this sick system. We cannot rest until Rodney is free and the Texas death chamber has been shut down once and for all!