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Texas Court Halts the Execution of Rodney Reed

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An appeals court halted the execution of Rodney Reed on Friday November 15, just days before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection in Texas. The ruling came after the freerodneyreed.com petition garnered 2 million signatures; and celebrities, lawmakers, and the Texas parole board had appealed to Governor Greg Abott on Reed’s behalf.

Reed, 51, whose death sentence was set for Nov. 20, has maintained his innocence since being convicted of the 1996 murder of 19 year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas. He was arrested based on DNA test results in the death of Stites, whose body was found on a rural road, presenting evidence of strangulation. Prosecutors said that she had been raped. However, Reed says that his DNA was recovered from Stites’ body because the two had been having an affair. 

Reed’s defense team, which includes longtime support and representation from The Innocence Project, insists that Reed’s case be retried because of errors in the murder timeline made by forensic experts involved in the original trial—errors that three of these experts have since acknowledged in affidavits. The defense also argues that new evidence of Reed’s be considered by the court, including testimony implicating Jimmy Fennell, Stite’s fiancé at the time. Fennell, who is a former police officer, had pleaded guilty in 2008 to kidnapping charges brought by a woman he met while on duty, and who also accused him of rape. One affidavit submitted by a man who served time with him says that Fennell admitted to killing Stites, a white woman, because of her affair with a black man. Fennell, however, maintains his innocence.

The Innocence Project continues to push for the murder weapon to be tested for DNA evidence, which attorneys believe will exonerate Rodney Reed. The organization has also pointed to race as a factor in Reed’s conviction, saying, “This case was racially charged: Reed, a black man, was found guilty of murdering Stites, a white woman by an all-white jury.” Convinced that Reed did not receive a fair trial the organization has  

In recent weeks, support from celebrities and public figures including Kim Kardashian West, Rihanna, Beyonce, Meek Mill and Richard Branson, who advocated for Reed on social media, has kept Reed’s pending death sentence in the public eye. Oprah Winfrey also called on state officials to reconsider the case, highlighting the petition on freerodneyreed.com, calling for a stay of the execution. In a bi-partisan effort, 26 house members and 16 state senators from the Texas legislature crossed party lines to send Governor Abbot emergency letters requesting that he grant a stay of execution.  

It should be noted that Reed has been accused of several other sex crimes, and despite being indicted was not convicted in those rape cases. Supporters like Shaun King, who started the freerodneyreed.com petition insist that focus on these allegations is misplaced: “As a part of the Innocence Project defense of Rodney Reed, they have also looked into every accusation, every allegation, but we have to start here. He has only been convicted in once case, and that’s the rape and murder of Stacey Stites,” said King in a recent Instagram message.

Stites’ family remains divided over the issue of Reed’s culpability. In October, a cousin of Stites told reporters, “I think Rodney Reed is innocent.”  However, Stites’ mother and sisters continue to support his conviction. According to KEYE/CNN, mother Carol Stites said in 2017, “I think it’s about time people stopped trying to defend Rodney Reed and look at Rodney Reed for who he is.”

Reed, is one for 215 prisoners on Texas’ death row. In 2018, Texas executed thirteen men—the most number of inmates of any state in the U.S. Last Friday the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas suspended Reed’s death sentence for the foreseeable future.

“At every turn we have asked for a hearing at which we can present the evidence, in full, of Rodney Reed’s innocence,” said Bryce Benjet one of Mr. Reed’s lawyers to the New York Times. “So it is extremely rewarding that we can finally have a chance to fully present his case in court, so it can be determined that he did not commit this crime.”

Cassandra Etienne is a freelance reporter and video journalist based in New Jersey. Her multimedia and documentary projects reflect an interest in cultural reporting, and in covering social issues such as civil rights, women's health, and education and healthcare reforms.