“He never had a chance.” That’s what Sandra Reed said at the start of a rally in front of the Texas governor’s mansion calling for a retrial for her son, Rodney Reed.
Reed, 51, has been on death row in Texas since 1998 and is scheduled to be executed on 20 November for murder.
But an array of supporters even beyond his own family, ranging from some relatives of the woman he was convicted of killing to a world-famous nun, argue that Reed is innocent and is a casualty of a criminal justice system beset by errors and racial bias.
His family has spent years trying to get his case overturned and he is represented by the Innocence Project, the not-for-profit group that focuses on DNA testing to exonerate wrongly convicted people and campaigns to reform the system.
Reed’s lawyers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Texas last month, after repeatedly being thwarted in their demands for DNA testing of the murder weapon, a leather belt used to strangle Stites. His lead attorney, Bryce Benjet of the Innocence Project, said continued refusal to perform the test violates Reed’s constitutional rights.
And Reed’s case has caught the attention of the Texas state representative Vikki Goodwin.
“I don’t think anyone can say he is guilty without a shadow of a doubt,” Goodwin said. “I don’t believe we should carry out the death penalty when there’s doubt about the truth of the case.”
During the original trial, DNA from the Stites case matched Reed, but he said he was having a secret affair with her to avoid scandal in a small Texas town, especially because Reed is black and Stites white.
Reed’s legal team believes new evidence presented at a retrial would prove that Jimmy Fennell, Stites’s fiancé at the time of her death, was the murderer.
Fennell was a police officer for Georgetown, near Austin, at the time, and was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for a different crime stemming from allegations that he kidnapped and raped a woman while on duty.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of actions to get Reed a retrial.
Three weeks before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection, on 5 March 2015 in the Texas state penitentiary, his lawyers filed an appeal to the criminal appeals court, citing multiple problems with his conviction and urging a stay of execution and a retrial. That same month, the US supreme court declined to review Reed’s case.
In the August 2019 lawsuit, the Innocence Project lawyers claim there are “multiple additional items of evidence” collected during the murder investigation in a “condition suitable for DNA testing”. The suit also argues that that Fennell couldn’t keep his testimony straight and failed his polygraph tests and that he acted “suspiciously” following Stites’ death, including closing his bank account and disposing of his truck.
Fennell’s “inconsistent statements” about his whereabouts on the night of 22 April 1996 are significant because the condition in which Stites’s body was found on 23 April indicates she was “murdered several hours before” her body was found, the suit claims.
“Prominent forensic pathologists have reached the un-rebutted conclusion that Fennell’s testimony that Ms. Stites was abducted and murdered while on her way to work around 3:30AM is medically and scientifically impossible,” the lawsuit claims.
Several complaints were filed against Fennell alleging “racial bias and use of excessive force at the Giddings Police Department where he worked”, and he was overheard several times saying that if Stites cheated on him, “he would kill her” and “he specifically stated he would strangle her with a belt”, the suit said.
Fennell was initially a suspect but investigators focused on Reed after his DNA was discovered inside Stites’s body, and a jury concluded thatReed raped and strangled Stites after intercepting her on the way to work, a timeline his lawyers argue has been discredited.
Supporters think there are other issues at play.
“Race was a big factor in this case. A ‘Jim Crow trial’, an all-white jury, none of his peers,” Sandra Reed told the Guardian.
Benjet said there was data showing racial disparity in “most if not every” aspect of the US criminal justice system.
Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty activist and author of the book Dead Man Walking, visited with Reed’s family in 2015 as his previous execution date neared.
She tweeted about Reed’s case in 2015.
She has followed the case ever since and plans to work with Reed’s family and his legal team to help spread the word in time to help stop his 20 November execution. Her spokesperson, Griffin Hardy, said Reed’s case was particularly compelling to Sister Helen because of Reed’s consistent claim of innocence throughout the years and because of the case’s racial undertones.
“Racial discrimination infects the death penalty system as a whole and we see it in this case,” Hardy said. “It’s disturbing to see these kind of biases and prejudices that can ultimately cost someone their life.”
He says it paints a picture of a legal system that values white victims over victims of color and punishes criminal convicts of color more harshly.
The Death Penalty Information Center reports that in the modern era, 75% of executions carried out for murder have involved white victims, even though blacks and whites “are about” equally as likely to be murder victims.
The bias issue made it to the supreme court in 1987, but the court ruled that studies didn’t offer sufficient proof of racial discrimination in a particular defendant’s case. It has found racial discrimination in the selection of the jury in individual capital cases, however.
Goodwin, the state representative, told the Guardian she was lobbying for a retrial for Reed or to remove him from death row.
“I believe history has shown that in too many cases what seems to be true and just has turned out not to be so when new information or new scientific advances occur,” she said.
Some members of the Stites family have publicly supported a retrial for Reed.
One of Stacey Stites’ cousins also doubts Reed’s conviction.
“Too many things point to the ineptitude of law enforcement when they first started working the case,” said Heather Campbell Stobbs.
Stobbs said her outspokenness about the case had caused tensions with Stites’ immediate family, who believe Reed is guilty.
Sandra Reed said at the rally of Reed supporters last month that she visited her son on death row after his execution date was set.
“Rodney and I made a pact the day they came back with that sentencing. I visited him and we made a pact: ‘If you fall, I fall,’” Sandra Reed said. “We’ve been sticking with that.”
Rodrick, Rodney’s younger brother, echoed that the campaign goes on.
“It’s not going to stop as long as I have breath in my body,” he said.