Skoog: Rodney Reed is innocent

Reed was wrongly convicted of murder, highlighting longstanding issues with institutional racism in the criminal justice system.

by Caroline Skoog

Rodney Reed has been on Texas’ booming death row for 22 years after an all white jury convicted him of the 1996 murder of Stacy Stites. Reed was scheduled to be executed on Nov. 20 despite a wave of evidence and updated testimonies in recent years that incriminate the case’s original suspect Jimmy Fennell, Stacy Stites’ fiance and a local police officer at the time. On Friday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Reed’s execution after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously recommended reprieving Reed’s execution. 

The case has garnered national attention, and Reed’s right to live is being defended by people both for and against the death penalty – abolitionists and Ted Cruz alike. The verdict essentially presents one of the primary arguments against capital punishment: the State is often wrong. Deliberately wrong, in this case. 

Stacy Stites was found on the side of a road raped and strangled to death on April 22, 1996. At the time she lived with her fiance, Fennell. Rodney Reed became a suspect in her murder a year later after investigators identified DNA found on Stites’ body as Reed’s. Reed maintains the two were having a consensual affair. Moreover, an affidavit from Charles Wayne Fletcher, another local officer and a friend of Fennell, indicates that in March 1996, Fennell told him that his wife was sleeping with a black man. However, Reed’s DNA served as the primary basis for his conviction; once again, a conviction decided by an all white jury. 

Fennell served a 10-year prison term for allegedly kidnapping and raping a woman while working as an officer in 2007. He plead guilty to kidnap and improper sexual activity. While in prison, Fennell admitted murdering Stites to Arthur Snow, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, according to an affidavit filed by Snow. In the affidavit, Fennel also stated “I had to kill my n*****-loving fiance.”  

Additionally, Stites’ decompositional fluids were found at the bottom of Fennells’ truck. The State’s medical and forensic experts present in the 1998 trial have all repudiated their previous testimonies. Investigators never tested the murder weapon, a braided belt, for DNA evidence. 

The case has been sent to the Texas appeals court for review of new evidence in a trial court. 

Rodney Reed is innocent. His indefinite stay of execution is undoubtedly positive compared to death. But the 22 years he’s been wrongfully on death row is state-sponsored violence in and of itself. He shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place. An insurmountable pile of evidence exonerating Reed has sat at the feet of the judicial system for decades, and while it’s not too late to bar his execution, a court ruling can’t restore the 22 years stolen from an innocent person. The trial court’s decision determines Rodney Reed’s fate. The results will show the lengths to which the U.S. judicial system will go to justify and institutionalize racism. The State’s complete disregard for evidence, due process and societal context mean that Reed should’ve been walking free yesterday. Anything less than an acquittal is radical injustice. 

The jury’s indefensible conviction, of course, is not an isolated incident. Reed’s 1998 trial is an artifact of an archaic, racist and fixed judicial system. As the justice system didn’t start outside of the context of the country’s race relations, its policies and practices do not protect people of color. The State has generations of blood on its hands, targeting, abusing and killing people of color. This context, the very foundation of U.S. ‘law and order,’ is why a government’s death sentence can’t be trusted.