The Framing of Rodney Reed: Innocent on Texas’ Death Row
Imagine this scenario: Two police officers are sharing a beer in grassy ditch off a highway in rural Texas. At their feet lies the body of a young woman killed elsewhere—strangled with something like a belt. The police officers discuss how they can shift blame for the woman’s death away from a fellow officer, who had been heard to threaten to strangle her with a belt if she cheated. The men work to incriminate the woman’s lover, a Black man who will end up on Texas’ death row.
Perhaps this is sensational fiction. It reads like a bad crime novel. But Rodney Reed sits on death row in Texas for the murder of Stacey Stites, his case surrounded by mystery. Evidence not introduced at trial casts serious doubt on Reed’s conviction. Investigators found two beer cans at the scene of the crime containing the DNA of Giddings officer David Hall, and Bastrop Police officer Ed Samela. Three months into the investigation, Samela died of an allegedly self-inflicted gunshot wound. The defense was never made aware of these findings.
Other evidence implicates Stites’ fiancé, former Giddings police officer Jimmy Fennell. In October, the Court of Criminal Appeals sent Reed’s case back to the trial court to hear testimony from Martha Barnett, who said she saw Stites and Fennell in a convenience store parking lot around 5am the morning Stites was murdered, and from Dallas police officer Mary Blackwell, who said she had heard Fennell bragging during a police training class that he’d strangle his girlfriend—with a belt—if she ever cheated on him.
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.
In the next several weeks, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), which is not bound by Towslee Corbett’s decision, will decide if Rodney Reed, who has been on Texas’ death row since 1998, should receive a new trial. Reed’s appeal attorneys, Morris Moon of the Texas Defender Service and former Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Morris Overstreet have sought a new trial on the argument that prosecutors withheld vital evidence, rendering Reed’s counsel ineffective.
There are many other troubling aspects of the Reed case. For example, the only piece of evidence connecting Reed to Stites is a semen DNA sample taken from her body–easily explained by a well-corroborated, consensual sexual relationship between the two. However, the Reeds could not afford a lawyer, and Rodney’s court-appointed defense team failed to call witnesses who could not only attest to the relationship, but also provide an alibi for Rodney.
Furthermore, Jimmy Fennell failed two lie detector tests in which he was asked “Did you strangle Stacey Stites?” The police and medical examiner botched the investigation of physical evidence in the case. Despite the fact that Stites was driving Fennell’s truck the day she was killed, and despite evidence that her body had been transported in the truck, police returned the truck to Fennell before conducting a complete forensic analysis. A fingerprint dusting of the truck had only produced two sets of prints: Fennell’s and Stites’. At the trial, the prosecution had the audacity to dismiss Reed’s missing fingerprints, suggesting that he was able to clean only his fingerprints from the truck. Upon receiving the truck from police, Fennell immediately sold it to an out-of-state buyer, while denying he had done so.
Stites’ 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.
Although shocking, Rodney’s case is anything but unique in a criminal justice system marked by race and class bias. Reed—a Black man of less than modest means living in rural Texas—was convicted by an all-white jury. His relationship with Stites, a white woman, was taboo in this context. His original trial lawyers, who are Black, publicly stated that they were afraid to stay overnight in Bastrop during the trial, yet they were still expected by the courts to mount the most rigorous defense possible.
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. 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.
As Rodney and his family await the CCA decision, local activist groups, led by the Austin chapter of Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), are working to raise public awareness about the Reed case. The case has received a significant boost in visibility with the award-winning documentary State vs. Reed. These next few weeks are crucial in the fight for justice for Rodney Reed. The judges on the Court need only briefly survey the existing analysis and discussion surrounding this case to see that there is a consensus supporting a new trial for Reed.
The fight goes well beyond winning a new trial for Rodney. The United States is alone among industrialized democratic countries in its use of capital punishment, and Texas has become an icon for this barbaric practice. Rodney Reed is only one of 391 people on death row in Texas, many of whom have experienced the similar miscarriages of justice. If we see the flaws in Rodney’s case, we must begin to call the entire institution into question.
Readers may write the CCA on Rodney’s behalf (at Court of Criminal Appeals, PO Box 12308, Capitol Station, Austin, Texas 78711) and sign a petition online at http://www.freerodneyreed.org. Our legislators, Governor Rick Perry, and all those vying for office in the upcoming elections must also get the message that the costs of the lives ruined by the death penalty far outweigh any benefit in carrying on Texas’ tradition of executions.