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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Rodney Reed: An Innocent Man?

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.





A Texas death row inmate was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on the 20th of November, however his execution has been stayed. His case has captured the attention of many high profile celebrities, with the likes of Beyonce, Rihanna, Oprah Winfrey and Kim Kardashian, all vying for him to gain justice.[1] A petition to emancipate him has collected millions of signatures and the figure continues to climb every day amidst growing public knowledge about his situation. His name is Rodney Reed and he may be an innocent man.


A black man in front of an all-white jury


In the year 1996, Stacey Stites was declared missing. She had left the home she shared with her fiancé, police officer Jimmy Fennel, for her shift in the early hours of the morning. Stites never made it to the grocery store she worked at and a worried co-worker reported this to the police. That same day a passer-by happened upon her body by the side of a road.[2] She had been strangled with the belt she was wearing and the traces of semen found in her suggested she had also been raped.


Her fiancé Fennell was the main suspect early in the subsequent investigation, however the semen found did not match his DNA sample: it matched Rodney Reed’s. Reed maintained he did not murder nor rape Stites. He explained that his semen was found in her because he was engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with Stacey Stites. His alibi fell upon unbelieving ears, and thus, in 1998 he was charged for the abduction, rape and murder of Stites. Past allegations against Reed contributed in the decision to sentence him to the death penalty, however of one of these allegations, he was charged and later acquitted, while the rest were hearsay.[3] And so, there stood Rodney Reed, in front of an all-white jury, sentenced to death.


The evidence suggests his innocence and Fennel’s guilt

Since his conviction new evidence and confessions have arisen, which indicate that Rodney was possibly wrongfully convicted. During the trial, the jury did not believe that he and Stites were romantically involved: the prosecution ensured to portray the relationship between Stacey and Jimmy as strong and happy, as they understood this to be important for their case because all that tied Rodney to the murder was his semen – they needed to ensure the jury discounted Jimmy as a suspect.


However, a few key people have disputed the prosecution’s portrayal of Stacey’s relationship with both Rodney and the characterisation of Jimmy. Stacey’s cousin, Heather Stobbs, along with one of Stacey’s former co-workers stated they were aware of the relationship between Stites and Reed.[4] Furthermore, colleagues and associates of Jimmy Fennell, in signed affidavits under oath, have provided information which suggests that Fennell may have committed the murder. Charles Fletcher, Fennell’s work colleague from the station, in his affidavit claimed he was left feeling ‘disturbed’ when Fennell told him he ‘believed Stacey was “f*cking a n****r”. If true, then Fennell was aware of the unfaithfulness of his fiancé. This indicates that Reed may have been telling the truth and that Fennell may have had a motive.


Jimmy Fennell has a long history with violence against women. Pamela Duncan, who he dated after Stacey’s murder, described him as verbally hostile, possessive and racist. She stated that Fennell stalked her after she ended their relationship standing outside her house late at night to scream obscenities at her. [5] In 2007 Jimmy was sent to prison for abducting and raping a woman while on duty.[6] While serving time for this crime, he allegedly confessed to the murder of Stacey Stites to his cell-mate, Arthur Snow, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. In his affidavit Snow stated, Fennell said he “had to kill his n****r-loving fiancé.”[7]


What the Media Kept Hidden


It would be remiss not to consider Reed’s character, for he was not a faultless man. According to Supreme Court documents, Reed has been accused of and linked to a few other rape cases including the rape of his girlfriend and the assault of a twelve-year-old girl.[8] Most media reports on Reed’s case have failed to disclose this important information. Perhaps to disclose this would ruin the ideal narrative of an ‘innocent man wrongly convicted’ by conventional standards.


However, this does not mean he is guilty for the crime he has been sentenced.

Much support Rodney has received has come from opponents to the death penalty and those who believe that the justice system discriminates against racial minorities. There have even been suggestions of a possible attempt at a cover up by the Texas court[9]. Thus, we should call for a reopening of investigations so that the true murderer of Stacey Stites is found, or indeed to ensure that Rodney is the guilty of the crime he is accused.


In the fight to find justice for Stacey Stites, the campaign for the abolition of the death penalty and battle racial inequality in the criminal justice system have been furthered; it is important that we do not deify the individual who is in the centre of it all. Although Rodney Reed may not be a good person, he may be an innocent man.

Joshua Morka (Criminal Law)


SOURCES


[1] Roisin O'Connor, 'Rodney Reed: Rihanna, Beyonce and Meek Mill sign petition to stop execution of 'innocent' man' The Independent (9 November 2019) <https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/rodney-reed-death-row-execution-petition-beyonce-rihanna-meek-mill-texas-a9198031.html> Accessed 17 November.


[2] Jordan Smith, 'Who Killed Stacey Stites' Austin Chronicle (24 May 2002) <https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2002-05-24/93214/> Accessed 18 November 2019.


[3] Josiah Bates, ‘Amid Growing Support Campaign, Texas Death Row Inmate Rodney Reed’s Planned Execution Has Been Stayed. Here’s What You Need to Know’ Time (15 November 2019) https://time.com/5722795/rodney-reed-innocent-execution-protests/ Accessed 18 November 2019


[4] Camille Augustin, 'Free Rodney Reed: 5 Things to Know About the Death Row Inmate's Case' (Vibe, 4 November 2019) <https://www.vibe.com/2019/11/rodney-reed-facts-to-know-about-death-row-inmate-execution> 21 November 2019.


[5] Jessica McBride, 'Jimmy Fenell: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know ' (Heavy, 17 November 2019) <https://heavy.com/news/2019/11/jimmy-fennell/> Accessed 21 November 2019.


[6] Jordan Smith, ‘Jimmy Fennell Pleads Guilty to Kidnapping, Sexual Misconduct’ The Austin Chronicle (26 September 2008) https://www.austinchronicle.come/news/2008-09-26/jimmy-fennell-pleads-guilty-to-kidnapping-sexual-misconduct/22 November 2019.


[7] McBride (n 5)


[8] Roberto Wakerell-Cruz, 'Why isn't the Media Telling Us the Full Story of Rodney Reed" (The Post Millenial, 15 November 2019) <https://www.thepostmillennial.com/why-isnt-the-media-telling-the-full-story-of-rodney-reed/> 29 November 2019.


[9] Innocence Staff, '10 Facts About Rodney Reed's Case You Should Know' The Innocence Project (10 November 2019) <https://www.innocenceproject.org/10-facts-you-need-to-know-about-rodney-reed-who-is-scheduled-for-execution-on-november-20/> 28 November 2019.

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