For 21 years, Rodney Reed has been on death row while fighting to prove his innocence. The now 51-year-old was convicted of murdering Stacey Stites on April 22, 1996. Reed, a black man, and Stites, a white woman, were in a consensual relationship although the latter was engaged at the time to former police officer Jimmy Fennell.
When Stites was killed, authorities discovered DNA that matched Reed’s, leading the jury to find him guilty. Reed’s legal counsel claims the DNA (semen) was a result of his and Stites’ relationship. Also, the murder weapon, a belt, was never tested for DNA and his fingerprints were nowhere to be found.
Now, 16 days before Reed’s execution by lethal injection, his legal team, activists, and celebrities are calling for a halt as counsel seeks to re-examine the evidence and present new witness testimonies to the court that might help to prove Reed’s innocence.
Here are five things to know about Reed’s case.
1. Rodney Reed Was Found Guilty By An All-White Jury
In 1998, Reed was found guilty by an all-white jury due to the discovery of his semen on Stites’ body. His legal team stresses it was the result of a consensual relationship between the pair.
“None of them look like me but I…grew up in the military. I was a military brat…I figured that they would hear the evidence and know that I’m innocent,” Reed said to ABC News. “Race played a big part. I didn’t see it at first…I wasn’t seeing racism like that.” Stites’ cousin and a co-worker supported Reed’s testimony that the pair were in a consensual relationship.
According to The Statesman, the case was fast-paced and left Reed’s defense counsel little to no time to present its side. Stites’ fiance, Jimmy Fennell, was also a suspect. The news site reports he reportedly failed two polygraph tests on his location at the time of Stites’ death but the jury zoned in on Reed after his DNA was found on Stites’ body.
2. The Suspected Murder Weapon Hasn’t Been Tested For DNA Evidence
The murder weapon, a belt, was never tested for DNA evidence and requests for its examination have been refused by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The Innocence Project also notes the three forensic officials that testified revealed their testimonies had errors.
“So we’re asking for DNA testing because it is a clear path where you can find additional evidence in this case,” Bryce Benjet, senior attorney for the Innocence Project, said. “And the obvious thing that you would want to test is the belt, because that was the item used to strangle the victim. [It] was held in the hands of the murderer and that’s very likely to have the DNA from the murderer.”
The belt was reportedly used to strangle Stites before her body was found near a Bastrop County road in Texas.
3. Jimmy Fennell Served A 10-Year Prison Sentence For Kidnapping And Sexual Abuse
While on duty, former police officer Fennell reportedly kidnapped and sexually abused a woman, receiving a 10-year sentence. According to The Innocence Project’s website, the organization states Fennell had a history of inflicting violence toward women.
While in prison, Fennell met an inmate named Arthur Snow Jr., who was a part of the Aryan Brotherhood gang. Fennell sought protection from Latino and Black inmates, so he attempted to befriend Snow according to a sworn three-page affidavit. Within the passage, Snow claims Fennell confessed to the murder and bragged about Reed’s predicament.
“He was talking about his fiancée with a lot of hatred and anger,” Snow stated. Race also came into the conversation when Snow claims Fennell believed Stites was “sleeping around with a black man.” Snow is Reed’s legal team’s fourth witness in an attempt to halt his execution.
Fennell’s lawyer, Robert Phillips, said his client denies any involvement in Stites’ murder. According to The Statesman, other witnesses have claimed Fennell’s questionable rhetoric, including a former Lee County sheriff’s deputy who said during Stites’ funeral, Fennell said “something along the lines of, ‘You got what you deserved.'”
4. Texas Authorities Sought To Execute Reed In 2015
According to The Guardian, Reed was slated to be executed on March 5, 2015, but an appeal filed by his legal team granted a stay of execution as the counsel continued to gather its findings and examinations.
Griffin Hardy, a spokesperson for Sister Helen Prejean (an advocate for the death penalty’s abolishment), said to The Guardian that, “Racial discrimination infects the death penalty system as a whole and we see it in this case. It’s disturbing to see these kind of biases and prejudices that can ultimately cost someone their life.”
A lawsuit was also filed in 2019 on Reed’s behalf that calls into question Fennell’s recollection used in the case. “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 3.30 a.m. is medically and scientifically impossible.”
5. A Petition Calls For At Least 120 Days To Analyze New Evidence
Although the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Reed’s stay of execution request, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to place attention to his plea. To recall an earlier claim, Fennell’s differing recollections of his whereabouts at the time of Stites’ death have also come into question.
According to Bastrop Sheriff’s Officer Curtis Davis, Fennell first said he was out drinking. Then he claimed he was at the apartment he and Stites shared. Investigators noted that his last claim was actually the same time Stites was murdered.
The petition aims to place a stay on Reed’s execution and garner the attention of Texas’ Gov. Greg Abbott. A social media campaign, #FreeRodneyReed, began to pick up steam over the weekend, receiving support from Meek Mill, Rihanna, Questlove, T.I., and more. Reed’s hope is to be granted a new trial.