By Ethan Tiao
Over the last several weeks, the name Rodney Reed has headlined newspapers, been featured on Instagram and Snapchat stories, and subsequently become ingrained in America’s collective conscious. In 1998, Reed was accused of raping and strangling Stacey Stites -- a resident of Bastrop, Texas, who was weeks away from marrying a police officer, Jimmy Fennell. When a sample of Reed’s DNA was found inside of Stites, he was promptly convicted and sentenced to death.
Twenty-three years later, cries for Reed’s freedom in the aftermath of conflicting evidence and the exposure of a flaky, insufficient investigation have put the flawed nature of the death penalty system in the spotlight for the country to see. The lack of scrutiny and due diligence displayed throughout this case re-affirms the unjust nature of the death penalty. Amidst a multitude of reasons, the death penalty should cease to exist because it often falls upon those of a lower-socioeconomic class who can’t afford high-quality lawyers and the subjective and variable nature of crime has led to the death sentence of many innocent people. In Rodney Reed’s scenario, the two aforementioned flaws play a major role in a case that may go down as one of the most colossal mistakes in criminal justice history.
In two instances during the case, Reed’s conviction was influenced by his socioeconomic status and his race. During the original trial, Reed was defended by a court-appointed lawyer -- one administered to people who don’t have the financial means to utilize retained counsel. Although court-appointed lawyers are not necessarily less skilled or capable in comparison to lawyers on retainer, an accused person working with a retained legal team on balance has a better chance at coming to a reduced or more lenient sentence than a defendant working with a state-administered lawyer. Reed’s lawyer in 1996, Lydia Clay-Jackson, took to the stand in 2017 on the third day of his exoneration hearing. She claimed, “[she] was ill-prepared at trial to defend [her] client in the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites.” The nature of taking someone’s life is much too severe to be determined in part by a defendant’s socioeconomic status but unfortunately, in this case, and many others before, it factored into the decision.
It can also be argued that Reed’s race and the bias of an all-white jury also factored into their verdict: It was later found that Reed and Stites were engaged in a consensual affair that may have been considered ‘taboo’ because of its interracial nature. While not definitive, it is highly likely that the jury in Texas, made up of 11 white citizens, held prejudice against Reed because of his skin color and the supposed killing of a white woman by a black man. The inherent subjectivity of a jury, especially one that isn’t ethnically diverse, is another one of the death penalty’s clear flaws.
The death penalty has a track record for convicting innocent people (potentially including Rodney Reed as one of them). This is an inexcusable occurrence. Although only ten people have been determined “possibly” innocent after execution, since 1973, over 156 people have been released from death rows in 26 states because of innocence. In Reed’s case, the investigation left a horrifying amount of questions unanswered. According to the Innocence Project, the actual murder weapon was never tested for DNA evidence, three forensic experts admitted on record to errors in their testimony, and two renowned forensic experts have concluded that Reed’s guilt is medically and scientifically impossible.
Moreover, Jimmy Fennel, Stites’s fiancee who was a prime suspect in the investigation, was incarcerated several years later for raping a woman he detained while he was a police officer. At which point he confessed to his cell-mate “I had to kill my n*****-loving fiancée.” Numerous people have corroborating evidence that Fennel constantly threatened to kill Stites and that he lied of his whereabouts the night of the murder. All the while, Rodney Reed remains on death row.
Last Wednesday, in the midst of mounting evidence proving the inconclusiveness of the investigation and a confession to the murder by the fiancee of the victim, a Texas appeals court moved to suspend Reed’s execution indefinitely.
Although Reed’s life has been spared, for the time being, the death penalty’s flaws continue to prevail. Two days earlier, Roger Cromartie, an inmate on Georgia’s death row was executed after courts denied appeals for DNA testing of the murder weapon and a witness’s claim that a different man confessed. Despite the victim’s daughter voicing support for the simple test, Georgia chose to ignore all appeals and inject Cromartie with lethal substances.
As Roger Cromartie is lowered into his grave, Reed enters his 24th year on death row, still set to be executed at some point in the future. As the death penalty’s failures continue to bring our country’s wealth disparity and underlying prejudice into the limelight, the question arises: How many more lives will we shatter before we once and for all get rid of this draconian method of administering false justice.