From Texas death row, the case of Rodney Reed

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These days, it’s not shocking to hear about an innocent person on death row, so it won’t be surprising to learn that Rodney Reed is just such a person.

Rodney has been caged on Texas death row for the past 14 years. He was convicted by an all-white jury in 1998 of raping and killing 19-year-old Stacey Stites in the town of Bastrop, Texas. But it seems that the only thing Rodney is guilty of is being Black and daring to have a relationship with a white woman, who was engaged to a white police officer, Jimmy Fennell. 

Early on the morning of April 23, 1996, Stacey failed to show up for work. That afternoon, her body was found in a wooded area. She had been strangled to death with a belt, and her body lay partly clothed in the grass. Several beer cans were found at the site. The pickup truck she usually drove to work, which belonged to Jimmy Fennell, was found miles away in a high school parking lot.

The only physical evidence linking Rodney to the crime was semen found in and on Stacey’s body. No hair, skin or fibers connecting Rodney to the crime scene or the truck were found anywhere. Rodney says that he was seeing Stacey off and on, and the two were intimate in the days before she was killed.

At Rodney’s trial, the state presented evidence not challenged by his lawyers that Stacey had been raped at or near the time of the murder. But prominent forensic experts have since confirmed that there is essentially no evidence of rape—and that the evidence merely suggests that Rodney and Stacey had sex within a week of her death.

In the small Texas town where Rodney lived, people were likely to take notice of the relationship between Rodney and Stacey. In fact, 11 people were prepared to speak at Rodney’s trial or had written affidavits attesting to the fact that they had seen the two together. But only two of these witnesses were heard from at the trial.

The state claims that Rodney abducted Stacey and drove her in the pickup truck to the wooded area where she was found. But none of Rodney’s fingerprints were found in or on the truck. Only prints for Stacey and her fiancé Jimmy were found. Rodney’s fingerprints likewise weren’t found on the murder weapon, nor on Stacey’s name badge nor anything else found at the crime scene.

There are huge holes in the state’s case against Rodney. For example, Jimmy Fennell, a former Giddings, Texas, police officer, has failed two lie detector tests when asked the question “Did you strangle Stacey Stites?” Yet Fennell was never pursued as a suspect. “Why wasn’t he?” asks one of Reed’s first lawyers, Jimmy Brown. “It makes no common sense…It was clear he’d failed the polygraph—not once, but twice. My question to the state was, how is that? Why do you not consider him a suspect? There was no answer.” 

The pickup truck that Stacey is believed to have driven the morning she died was given back to Fennell just six days after the crime, and Fennell promptly sold it. Police never searched the apartment Stacey and Jimmy shared, the last place she was known to be alive.

A friend of Stacey’s, Ronnie Reveal, told investigators, he talked with Stacey shortly before her death.… She seemed quite a bit down. She told him that her and her boyfriend were having problems and also that the boyfriend had a violent temper.” Reveal was never called to testify at trial.

Police never searched the apartment Stacey and Jimmy were living in, which is the last place she was known to be alive. According to other police officers this would be standard practice.

When Stacey’s body was examined by investigators, they saw that her nails had been cut to the quick, but not filed—something a police officer would know to do to lessen the chance of being identified by fingernail scrapings. This was never presented to the jury.

Since his conviction, Rodney has won an evidentiary hearing where he was able to present evidence never heard during his original trial. For example, prosecutors had withheld from Rodney’s lawyers the fact that the two beer cans found at the crime scene were tested for DNA. The report excluded Rodney, but stated that the cans contained a mixture of DNA that might have come from Stacey and two police officers. One of these officers committed suicide before Rodney’s trial, and the other was a good friend, co-worker and neighbor of Jimmy Fennell.

Subsequent DNA testing of the beer cans ruled out Stacey and one of the officers, but the other officer couldn’t be ruled out as a DNA match. 

Had this information been presented at trial it would have been devastating to the state’s case.

Also not presented at Rodney’s original trial was the testimony of two important witnesses. One, Mary Barnett, saw Stacey and Jimmy in the midst of an argument in the parking lot of a convenience store in the early morning hours on the day she was murdered. This was at a time when Fennell testified he was at home and asleep. This eyewitness account was conveyed to the district attorney before Rodney’s trial, but never disclosed to the defense.

Another witness, Police Officer Mary Blackwell, said she heard Fennell, in a police academy class, say that if he ever found out that his girlfriend was cheating on him, he’d “strangle her, and would avoid leaving fingerprints by using a belt.” As it turned out, Stacey was killed with a belt. Blackwell also witnessed Fennell being abusive toward Stacey. Again, this information was transmitted to law enforcement, but was never followed up, nor disclosed to the defense.

Despite this compelling evidence presented at Rodney’s evidentiary hearing in 2006, Judge Reva Towslee Corbett, the daughter of the original trial judge in the case, ruled against Rodney. She signed a lengthy ruling that was copied verbatim from a document prepared by the state, denying all of Rodney’s claims and saying, in essence, that the evidence wouldn’t have affected the jury’s decision.

In 2008, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals denied Rodney again, sending his case back into the federal courts, where it remains.

“I hope and pray for his freedom everyday,” says Rodney’s mother Sandra Reed, who is an active abolitionist,He’s tired. I’m tired. We’re all tired. It has caused a strain across the board, not just for Rodney, but also for all of us because we are a family. It’s hard.” She goes on to say, “I never dreamed that the truth would be covered up for 14 years. There is such corruption in the justice system.

If they had just let the truth be told, Rodney would have been home a long time ago.

I am someone that always believed in the justice system. I thought, well, nothing is perfect, but that the good outweighs the bad. But, it appears that the bad outweighs the good when it comes to the justice system. Now I see, it’s all about greed, money and power.”

The Reed family along with activists from the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and other abolitionist groups have marched in Bastrop and participated in the annual Texas abolition marches. Sandra Reed speaks on panels and at marches to try to help her son, but also to advocate for an end to the death penalty. The Reeds have a banner hanging outside of their house that reads, “Innocent man on death row, Free Rodney Reed.”

One person who noticed the banner in front of the Reed’s house is Caitlin Adams. She moved to Bastrop in 2010 and, curious about the sign, approached family members one day when she saw them on the porch. Since then, Caitlin has written about the case and visited Rodney many times. She has created a blog that brings to life the humanness behind the prison walls where Rodney is unjustly imprisoned.

Caitlin does this even as her own health deteriorates from ALS, a neuromuscular disease that is weakening her muscles, making it difficult for her to walk and speak. But she feels she was meant to meet Rodney, and the encounters with him have given her a fresh outlook on life:

“I’m reminded with every visit what the important things are in life,” she says. “I’ve visited Rodney, almost weekly since September, and I can only tell you he is inspiring to me, a good person and friend. I’ve spent a lot of time researching his case, and I am convinced he is completely innocent.”

Activists in Austin and Bastrop have plans to show the excellent documentary about Rodney’s caseState vs. Reed in the community center in Bastrop. “We have to keep the pressure up, we can’t leave it up to the courts, because they have failed Rodney for the past 14 years,“ says Lily Hughes.

While activists are convinced of Rodney’s innocence, there are those who are not. Rodney’s detractors point to several allegations of abuse toward women. But Rodney was never prosecuted for any of these allegations, except one, where Rodney was acquitted at trial.

Nevertheless, the facts of this case speak for themselves: the many instances of misconduct by police, the botched investigation, the withholding of exculpatory evidence by prosecutors, and the inadequate defense during the original trial. All of this at the very least should mean a new trial for Rodney—something that Rodney, his family, friends, and activists are still hoping for. 

In fact, there is mounting evidence pointing to Jimmy Fennell as the likely suspect, an avenue that Rodney’s defense team continues to pursue. In 2008, Fennel pled guilty after being charged with kidnapping and raping a woman in 2007 while on duty as a police officer in the city of Georgetown, Texas. He is currently serving a 10-year sentence. 

Bryce Benjet, one of Rodney’s current lawyers, says, “We have developed a trove of evidence that shows that Rodney is innocent and suggests that Jimmy Fennell, assisted by others, murdered Stacey and dumped her body in the woods. Based on his racist and violent nature, Jimmy Fennell certainly had motive and opportunity to kill Stacey. Further, his leaving her body in a remote location matches his conduct in two other attacks on women. We are confident that the federal courts will listen to the hard facts of the case and give Rodney the new trial he so clearly deserves.”

Rodney remains hopeful that “justice for all” will one day include him and is thankful for the efforts of activists on his behalf.

For more information about this case, read the comprehensive articles written by Jordan Smith for the Austin Statesmen.

How you can help:

1. Sign and circulate the online petition for Rodney.

2. Join Rodney’s Facebook page.

3. For more information or to download a fact sheet about Rodney’s case, visit the Get the Factssection of our website.

4. Read and share this new blog about Rodney on our website

Tales from Death Row: Justice for Rodney Reed

Recently, the CEDP began publishing a regular blog by Bastrop, Texas, resident Caitlin Adams. After meeting the family of Rodney Reed outside of their home in 2011, Caitlin began visiting Rodney, and continues to do so on a regular basis. Her blog posts are incredibly moving; filled with humor and pathos. Caitlin brings Rodney’s spirit beyond the prison walls.

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