The Case of Rodney Reed
Rodney Reed has been on Texas’ death row since 1998. He was convicted of the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites in the small town of Bastrop, Texas. Stacey’s brutal murder struck at the very heart of the community, not only for its brutality, but for the sinister chain of events it would set into motion. Rodney’s case is a troubling mixture of prosecutoral misconduct, police corruption, poor defense, and institutional racism. Evidence of Rodney’s innocence is overwhelming and the need for a new trial is indisputable.
Rodney was convicted on the basis of one piece of evidence. His DNA was found in a semen sample taken from Stacey’s body at the scene of the crime. Conventional wisdom would suggest such evidence is the nail in the coffin of any capital murder case, not least of all one including an alleged rape. However, Rodney’s court-appointed attorneys (two African American lawyers afraid to spend nights in a small Texas town like Bastrop) neglected to provide witnesses who would testify that Rodney and Stacey were engaged in a sexual relationship at the time of her tragic death. No other evidence in the case connected Rodney to Stacey or the crime scene. Yet, Rodney, his family, and his supporters would soon learn that evidence of a Black man engaged in sexual relationship with a white woman in a small Texas town would be more than enough to frame him for murder and send him to death row.
Stacey was engaged to Jimmy Fennell, a police officer in Giddings, Texas, at the time of her murder. Witnesses would later testify – both inside and outside the courtroom – that Fennell had a violent temper and was prone to jealousy. During one of Rodney’s appeals, a fellow police academy graduate would swear under oath that she heard Fennell say he would strangle his girlfriend with a belt (in order to hide fingerprints) if she ever cheated on him. Stacey’s recorded cause of death was strangulation with a belt. Shortly following Stacey’s murder, Fennell was transferred to the Georgetown Police Department just north of Austin. In 2008, Fennell was sentenced to ten years in prison for “kidnapping and improper sexual contact with a person in custody” when he raped a woman who called the police about a domestic dispute. Since that conviction, no fewer than three women have come forward to allege similar threats and assaults, including one additional rape. He is slated for release in 2018.
Such a troubling pattern of behavior does not automatically make a person guilty of capital murder. While Fennell was an early suspect in Stacey’s murder, officials eventually turned to Rodney. Yet, a significant amount of evidence, much of which was never made available to the defense, suggests the involvement of Fennell and other police officers.
For example, Stacey was driving Fennell’s pickup truck the morning she was murdered. Officials found the truck abandoned, briefly examined it for fingerprints and other evidence, before returning it to Fennell. No crime lab ever analyzed this important piece of evidence, though it was almost certainly used to transport Stacey’s body after she was murdered. Fennell would promptly sell the truck and later deny that he had done so. Prosecutors would later argue that, although only Stacey and Fennell’s fingerprints were found in the truck, Rodney was ingenious enough to remove only his prints from the vehicle. Fennell also failed two lie detector tests in which he was asked, “Did you strangle Stacey Stites?”
The defense was never made aware of two beer cans found at the scene of the crime containing the DNA of Giddings officer David Hall and Bastrop officer Ed Samela. Three months into the investigation, Samela died of an allegedly self-inflicted gunshot wound. Investigators also failed to search the apartment Stacey and Fennell shared in Giddings (the last known place she was alive) and did not inform the defense of a witness who claimed to see the engaged couple together the morning of the murder.
Stacey’s body was missing for two hours before arriving at the medical examiner’s office. When it did show up, it had bruises and burns not present at the scene of the crime. Moreover, labels used to ship evidence to California for DNA testing by the defense did not match shipping company records. The chief investigator in the case was none other than disgraced Travis County Chief Medical Examiner Robert Bayardo, whose incompetence on the job would eventually lead to his forced retirement. In 2012, Bayardo recanted a majority of his original testimony, stating that the semen found in Stites’ body WAS consistent with Rodney’s version of events. The Texas courts have refused to consider this new information.
In October of 2005, the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) sent Reed’s case back to the trial court to hear new testimony that may exonerate Rodney. Few were surprised when the presiding judge, State District Judge Reva Towslee Corbett – the daughter of the judge who originally sent Rodney to death row – advised against a new trial. The CCA upheld this decision and the US Supreme Court denied Rodney’s petition, without comment, on November 3, 2014, setting an execution date of January 14, 2015. Disturbingly, the execution was set before the Bastrop County Court heard a motion requesting DNA testing of crime scene artifacts that, although in police custody for over 15 years, have never been tested. “Frankly, what we’re asking for is, I think, a pretty conservative thing,” says Bryce Benjet, Rodney’s attorney. “To do DNA testing of evidence before you execute someone.” On November 25, 2014, Judge Doug Shaver ruled that the DNA request was an “unreasonable delay”, while granting the prosecution’s request to move the execution to March 5, 2015.
Amidst this web of troubling and conflicting evidence remains a familiar and disturbing dynamic: a Black man sleeping with a white woman, engaged to a white police officer in a small Texas town. Indeed, few taboos are older or more damaging than sexual relations between African American men and white women. From the disturbing imagery of lynching photographs, to the shameful railroading of the Scottsboro Boys, and the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, the deadly impact of such a taboo is a secret to no one. Today, Black men constitute just over twelve percent of the nation’s population, but occupy nearly half of the spots on U.S. death rows, while the overwhelming majority of victims whose murders generate death sentences are white. Furthermore, nearly all of those sentenced to death relied on notoriously inadequate court-appointed attorneys or (in states other than Texas, which has no public defender system) public defenders without the necessary resources to investigate and defend capital cases.
In the years since Stacey’s murder, more people close to the case have been convinced of Rodney’s innocence. Her sister continues to believe the court got the right man, but Stacey’s cousin Judy Mitchell has had a change of heart and is speaking out. “We have to stand up and say, look, there are too many questions to execute a man without them all being answered,” Judy says. “I believe Jimmy Fennell is guilty and I can’t in good conscience” keep quiet any longer.
The Texas death penalty has been under intense national scrutiny over the past several years and the conviction of Jimmy Fennell and the testimony of his victims has brought renewed attention to Rodney’s fight for a new trial. Rodney’s case has also benefited from the visible advocacy work of his family and activist groups like the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, as well as the award-winning documentary State vs. Reed.
The possibility of winning a new trial for Rodney Reed is real. He is represented by the Innocence Project
, an organization known for freeing the wrongfully convicted. However, in a state that has executed 474 people since 1982, the racially-charged case of Rodney Reed will require vigilance on the part of his supporters to see that justice is done.