Culture

A Primer On Rodney Reed’s Fight For A Stay Of Execution

The name Rodney Reed has been tearing across social media and news feeds like wildfire over the past week. The Texas man, 51, is currently on death row and scheduled to be executed next Wednesday, November 20th, for the rape and murder of Stacy Stites in Bastrop, Texas in 1996.

As Reed awaits his fate, a movement has been brewing consisting of activists, lawmakers, and celebrities like Kim Kardashian West, Beyoncé, and Oprah Winfrey who believe Reed — who has always maintained his innocence — deserves a stay of execution and a re-trial amidst evidence that, if true, strongly suggests he is innocent and has been wrongly convicted and imprisoned (for the crime in question, though he is a non-excluded DNA match in multiple other violent rapes).

As November 20th looms closer, a petition calling on Texas Governor Greg Abbott to stop the execution of Rodney Reed has garnered nearly three million signatures, and another Change.org petition has reached nearly one million signatures — indicating a broad movement to help Reed get some measure of justice. Gov. Abbott has yet to speak publicly regarding the case amid mounting national pressure.

Here is everything you need to know about the Rodney Reed case and why many believe he may be innocent of the Stacy Stiles murder.

What Happened To Stacy Stites?

On April 22nd, 1996, Stacy Stites failed to show up for a 3:30 am shift at the grocery store where she worked, 30 miles from her home. At the time, she was living with her fiancé Jimmy Fennell, a Bastrop area police officer. Stites’ body was found later the same day along the roadside; investigators concluded that she had been raped and strangled.

According to TIME, Reed did not become a person of interest in the investigation until a year after Stites’ death — when DNA on Stites’ body matched forensics from a similar crime that Reed was accused of (and for which he was a DNA match). That DNA only surfaced when Reed was charged with the kidnapping, beating, and attempted rape and murder of a third woman, named Linda Schlueter, six months after the Stites killing.

Prosecutors in the Stites’ case used Rodney Reed’s DNA match and history of brutal violence against women as evidence against Reed (who in total was the suspect in six violent sexual attacks on women, three of which he was a foreign DNA match for). He was convicted and the jury approved the State’s recommendation for the death sentence. However, Reed contends that he and Stites had a consensual sexual relationship and he last saw her the day before she went missing, explaining why his DNA was found by forensics (this defense was similar to his claims in another rape case, that of Connie York, for which Reed was eventually acquitted).

Bryce Benjet, Reed’s lawyer who has worked the case for the past 18 years, argues that evidence and new witness statements clear Reed of any wrongdoing. Reed, who is black, was convicted by an all-white jury, a fact that Benjet tells TIME is another key factor in Reed’s wrongful conviction.

“I don’t think you can ignore the role that racism plays in our criminal justice system… in a rural part of Texas the accusation of a black man raping a white woman is essentially a charge.”

Why Many Believe Rodney Reed May Be Innocent Of Killing Stites

Rodney Reed wasn’t always the person of interest in the Stacy Stites case. Investigators were originally looking at Stites fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, but after the DNA match with Reed, leads concerning Fennell were dropped. According to CNN, during Reed’s trial, prosecutors portrayed Fennell and Stites as a happy couple eagerly looking forward to their wedding day, but recent testimony from neighbors, colleagues, and associates close to Stites and Fennell describe their relationship as abusive, with several friends of Stites claiming they were told of her affair with Reed.

Additionally, TIME reports that Texas Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Clampit, who was in attendance at Stites’ funeral, recalls Fennell looking at Stites’ body and saying something along the lines of, “you got what you deserved.” Charles Fletcher, a former officer of Bastrop County police and friend of Fennell also alleges in a signed affidavit that Fennell told him he had suspicions Stites was having an affair with a black man.

According to a CNN report, in 2007 while Fennell was responding to a domestic dispute call while he working as an officer in Georgetown, Texas, he detained a woman who later accused him of rape. In 2008 Fennell pled guilty to a lesser charge of kidnapping and improper sexual activity with a person in custody and was sentenced to ten years in prison. A former inmate and member of the Aryan Brotherhood who served time with Fennell, Arthur Snow, said in a signed affidavit filed in November that Fennell confessed to killing Stites while in prison.

“Jimmy said his fiancee had been sleeping around with a black man behind his back… toward the end of the conversation Jimmy said confidently, ‘I had to kill my n*gg*r-loving fiancee.’”

According to the Innocence Project, Curtis Davis, Fennell’s best friend at the time and a Bastrop Sherrif’s Officer has claimed that Fennell gave an inconsistent account of where he was on the night Stites was murdered, originally claiming to be out drinking and later stating he was in their apartment during what new forensics-experts contend is the likely timeframe of Stites death.

The timeline that prosecutors in the Reed trial laid out has been called into question after new forensic research indicates that Stites was killed hours before authorities were notified of her disappearance, not in the two-hour window the prosecution originally alleged, placing Stites time of death as before she had left to work, and indicating that hair found on Stites body did not match Reed’s, with some forensic pathologists concluding that Reed’s guilt is medically and scientifically impossible. The forensic experts called upon during the original trial also now admitted in signed affidavits that the original timeline laid out by prosecutors was not necessarily accurate.

Fennell’s attorney Robert Phillips says Fennell is innocent and calls the claims “utterly laughable,” according to TIME.

Who Is Calling For A Stay Of Execution?

On November 12th, Benjet and Reed’s legal team filed their latest appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, along with the new affidavits and witness accounts that refute Stites and Fennell’s status as a happy couple.

Additionally, Texas GOP representative Michael T. McHaul, as well as 26 Texas House lawmakers, have written a letter to Gov Abbot and the Texas Board of Pardons and paroles requesting a stay of execution regarding Rodney Reed, writing:

“A death sentence is final, and given the doubt surrounding his innocence at this time, I believe our state cannot execute Mr. Reed in good conscious without fully reviewing all the evidence.”

Prominent Texans like Beto O’Rourke and Senator Ted Cruz have since come out in support of taking another look at the evidence with Cruz tweeting, “Having spent years in law enforcement, I believe capital punishment can be justice for the very worst murderers… but if there is credible evidence there’s a real chance a defendant is innocent, that evidence should be weighed carefully.”

A flood of celebrity support has poured for Reed, with efforts to sway Gov. Abbott kicking into high gear as we approach November 20th.

In an interview with NBC Nightly News, Reed maintains his absolute innocence in the murder of Stacy Stites saying, “I am cautiously optimist that something good has got to happen.”

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