What’s next for Rodney Reed?

May 28, 2015

Lily Hughes of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty describes the activism that won a stay of execution for Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed--and explains what's next in the fight to win justice, in an article written for the New Abolitionist.

ON FEBRUARY 23, just days before his scheduled execution date, Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed was granted a stay from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA).

In the preceding months and years, Rodney's many advocates--his family, his legal team and supporters from around the world--have fought to stop the execution and to make the courts to finally recognize the truth: Rodney is innocent of the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas.

The order for the stay from the CCA was in response to a new appeal filed by Rodney in early January, which includes explosive new findings regarding the time of death of Stacey Stites, the victim in the case.

In the course of filming a recent A&E special about Rodney's case, Dead Again: Dead Man Talking, an investigator came to the conclusion that Stacey was murdered several hours earlier than the time frame advanced by the original medical examiner and the prosecution at trial. Further examination of the forensic evidence by other experts proves that Stacey was murdered closer to 10 p.m., placing her in the apartment she shared with her fiancé and former police officer Jimmy Fennell at a time when Fennell claimed to be home.

Death penalty opponents demand justice for Rodney Reed, on death row in Texas
Death penalty opponents demand justice for Rodney Reed, on death row in Texas

In their response to the state's motion to dismiss the new appeal, Rodney's lawyers argue:

Absent from the State's Motion to Dismiss is any evidence contradicting the compelling scientific proof and factual accounts which establish Mr. Reed's innocence...The State's Response appears to be aimed solely at preventing any meaningful inquiry into the growing body of evidence that the State convicted the wrong man for the murder of Stacey Stites.

The lawyers further describe how the new conclusions about the time of death came about:

This discovery was made on October 21, 2014, by a disinterested retired NYPD homicide investigator, Det. Sgt. Kevin Gannon as part of his review of the evidence for the television crime show Dead Again. From his review of the crime scene photos, video, autopsy report and law enforcement investigation reports, Det. Sgt. Gannon noticed evidence of decomposition pointing to a longer post-mortem interval and lividity patterns showing that the body had been moved. Neither the State's forensic team during the murder investigation or the forensic experts originally retained as part of the prior habeas investigation conducted in 2002 noticed this evidence or recognized its importance.

Following Gannon's revelation, Rodney's legal team presented the evidence to three highly regarded forensic pathologists and all corroborated Gannon's findings.

THE APPEAL also includes new witness statements corroborating an ongoing relationship between Rodney and Stacey. Rodney has always maintained that the consensual sexual relationship he had with Stacey is what led to his DNA being found at the crime scene--the only physical evidence tying him to the scene. The many witnesses who would have testified to the relationship were never called to testify at trial. Now others have submitted affidavits to this effect, including a cousin of Stacey's, as well her former co-workers at H.E.B.

Stacey's cousin, Calvin "Buddy" Horton describes witnessing the affair between the two. In his statement, Horton says "Sometime after Stacey's death I remember seeing pictures of Rodney Reed on the news and in the newspaper after he became a suspect in the death of my cousin. Rodney Reed is the same man I saw with Stacey at the Dairy Queen in 1995."

In addition to the new appeal, the CCA is hearing a separate appeal regarding DNA testing that was denied by a lower court. Testing all the DNA that has been requested could help bolster Rodney's claim to innocence.

Rodney's supporters believe that these latest revelations are further proof that Texas has convicted the wrong man.

The court must examine all of the evidence closely, efforts which could include evidentiary hearings in a state district court where the forensic experts and other witnesses can offer their testimony.

Because of the strength of these new findings, Rodney's supporters believe that the Court should reverse Rodney's conviction and free him from death row. As former prisoner and Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEPD) board member Mark Clements puts it, "It is my belief that Reed will prevail and be granted evidentiary hearing on his claim of actual innocence arising from faulty and false testimony by the original pathologist."

The campaign for justice for Rodney Reed that started over 15 years ago continues to the struggle toward that goal.

SHORTLY AFTER Rodney's conviction in 1998, his family attended an anti-death penalty event in 2000 and connected there with activists in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Alongside the family, activists created a fact sheet and petition about the case and began to organize speaking events with Rodney's mother Sandra Reed.

Over the next decade, Sandra, Rodney's brother Rodrick Reed and other family members spoke out about Rodney's case. They travelled all over Texas, and often flew to Chicago for the CEDP's annual convention to speak to people from around the country. Activists in Austin organized barbeques, rallies, held petition tables and other events to get the word out about the case.

In 2002, the Austin Chronicle ran a long http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2002-05-24/93214/ by reporter Jordan Smith, which helped propel local interest in Rodney case. In 2006, filmmaker Ryan Polomski, then a University of Texas film student, created the award-winning documentary, State vs. Reed, which became an invaluable tool in the campaign to win justice for Rodney. The film has been screened to large and small audiences around the country and is streaming online.

The case was regularly featured in The New Abolitionist, the national newsletter of the CEDP, and the left newspaper, Socialist Worker. A blog by Rodney's pen pal and friend Caitlin Adams became a feature at nodeathpenalty.org in 2011, and the case began to attract some national media attention.

A previous appeal for Rodney was denied by the federal courts in 2013, paving the way for the State to set an execution date last summer. The efforts over the years to build support for Rodney meant that a group of activists was able to jump into action once the execution date was set.

Rodney was originally issued an execution for January 2015. The judge who issued the death warrant also agreed to hear a motion for DNA testing at a later date. In November 2014, activists packed a hearing where that same judge denied a motion for further DNA testing, but also reset Rodney's execution date for March 5, 2015.

From the moment Rodney's date was set, an intense campaign to stop the execution, lobby the courts to agree to DNA testing, and demand a thorough examination of the evidence in the case was underway. Activists organized a series of actions meant to draw attention to the case from the public, the media, the courts and the political establishment.

At a string of organizing meetings and online discussions, activists created a sample clemency letter aimed at the Texas governor and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. A campaign website was created to collect information and make materials available to activists. Activists continued to promote an online petition at change.org. Campaigners also started a solidarity photo campaign on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter where supporters could post pictures of themselves holding signs of support for Rodney.

These organizing meetings also brought out a contingent of students from the University of Texas, who launched the Campus Campaign to Save Rodney Reed.

THE CAMPAIGN ramped up in January, when activists collected petitions, clemency letters and solidarity photos. Supporters marched in the annual MLK Day March under a banner that read "Free Rodney Reed: and signed up hundreds of people on the petition. They held a rally outside the Texas State Capitol on January 24, and a national conference call with Sandra Reed on January 26.

On Valentine's Day weekend activists staged three separate events:

-- On Friday, February 13, campaigners organized a march around the Bastrop County Courthouse with Rodney's family. A small group of supporters, including Rodrick Reed, tried to speak with the Bastrop County district attorney, but were turned away.

On Saturday, February 14, activists, with a lot of support from the student contingent, organized a clemency event at the Governor's Mansion asking Texas Governor Greg Abbott to "Have a Heart: Stop the Execution." Activists strung dozens of homemade valentines on the fence and unveiled one huge valentine outside the mansion.

On Sunday, February 15, the faith community came out for another clemency event--this time with Sister Helen Prejean, a nun and renowned human rights activist. Sister Helen spoke alongside Rodrick Reed and Heather Stobbs, a cousin of Stacey Stites, as well as members of the Austin faith community. Well over a hundred people crowded into to Austin's Friends Meeting House to hear these incredible speakers and to sign clemency letters for Rodney.

February 16 was the premiere of the A&E special episode of Dead Again featuring Rodney's case. Millions of people watched this show, propelling the case to national attention. The Rodney campaign's activity on Twitter and Facebook during the premiere drew hundreds of new supporters to our social media network and the newly launched campaign website.

During this time, the campaign in Texas was bolstered by the arrival of a group of former prisoners from around the country. One was Mark Clements, who served 28 years of a juvenile life without parole sentence before being released. Mark serves on the board of the CEDP, who sponsored his trip to Texas from Chicago to campaign for clemency for Rodney.

Witness to Innocence, a group made up of exonerated death row prisoners, also sponsored several members to come to Texas in February and March. They included Shujaa Graham (former California death row prisoner) and Gary Drinkard (former Alabama death row prisoner). Shujaa is a longtime friend of the Reed family, having spoken alongside Sandra Reed at many events over the years.

Shujaa and Gary joined Delia Perez Meyer (sister of Texas death row prisoner Louis Perez) at a panel event on the University of Texas campus in February. Mark, Shujaa and Gary then participated in an open-air speak-out on campus later that week and attended meetings all over Austin (and Bastrop) to build support for Rodney.

THE EVENTS in February all built toward a big "Rally for Justice for Rodney Reed!" held on February 21. The event drew over 300 people to the Governor's Mansion. Many came from Bastrop and also from around the state.

An incredible line up of speakers spoke of the need to stop the execution, for the courts to reopen the case, and for Rodney to be found innocent and freed. The speakers included Sandra, Rodrick, activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, several former prisoners, and family members of people who were killed by police.

One of those speakers was Ava Haywood, whose son died in police custody in Bastrop County. Ava grew up with Sandra in Bastrop and described the system there in a powerful speech:

The motives that are judging Rodney Reed today are evil Jim Crow motives. June 10, 1892, Toby Cook was hanged for the rape and murder of a white woman in Bastrop County. The characteristics of this case run parallel with Rodney Reed. Many of the judges and law enforcement that were over the case of Toby Cook--they were ancestors of many of the family members in the judicial system in Bastrop Country today.

Throughout the campaign, media came out to every event, and stories about Rodney were almost a nightly feature on the local news.

Although the campaign for justice for Rodney has been headquartered in central Texas, the struggle has spread around the world. Today, the Change.org petition for Rodney has over 20,000 signatures.

The campaign has received petitions in the mail from Japan. Supporters have sent solidarity photos from as far Australia and as near as Mexico, and activists have held solidarity events in France and Germany.

The clemency campaign for Rodney drew some high-profile supporters, including actors Dick Gregory and Susan Sarandon, musician Chuck D of Public Enemy and former Olympic medalist John Carlos.

Rodney was a subject of an Amnesty International urgent action to stop his execution, drawing even wider attention to his plight.

Meanwhile, an increase in national media attention has helped build support and vice versa. Jordan Smith, now writing for the investigative journalism web site The Intercept, has been writing about this case for years and has continued her coverage on a new national stage. And in the days after the airing of the A&E special, Chris Hayes at MSNBC featured the case on his show All In With Chris Hayes .

In an incredible turn of events, just a few days after the big rally at the Governor's mansion, the CCA announced a stay of execution for Rodney Reed. While the Court declined to offer any insight into why they granted the stay--although newly elected Texas Governor Greg Abbott had this to say:

I think this is a healthy process that the court announced what it did so that we can put beyond a shadow of any doubt whatsoever, that he really is guilty of the crime for which he was convicted."

FOLLOWING THE stay of execution, activists have continued to keep up the pressure. In late February, campus activists held an overnight "Sleep-in for Rodney" on the main mall at the University of Texas. Despite chilly weather, students stayed all night and were joined by Mark Clements and Rodrick Reed.

In early March, Texas abolitionists held a lobby day and Day of Innocence at the Texas State Capitol. Family members of Texas prisoners were joined by Witness to Innocence members Ron Keine (former New Mexico's death row prisoner) and Sabrina Butler (former Mississippi death row prisoner), as well as Mark Clements of the CEDP. The group spent the day talking to legislators and representatives of the governor's office about the death penalty and the case of Rodney Reed.

In late March, Rodney's supporters held a rally in front of the Court of Criminal Appeals. Participants took turns standing for photos inside the taped off measurements of a prison cell to demonstrate the reality of life on the row. In April, student activists led a die-in on the University of Texas campus, and held a panel discussion at UT featuring Rodrick and others.

Although Rodney has been given a stay of execution, the fight is far from over. The court has agreed to look at Rodney's new appeal, but there are no guarantees of a favorable ruling. One possibility is that the court could look at the evidence and opt to deny relief, as they have done in the past.

Another possibility is that the CCA could order a new trial. This wouldn't be unwelcome to Rodney and his supporters. However, if the evidence of innocence is strong enough to warrant a new trial, then it would make better sense for the court to reverse the conviction altogether.

The best possible outcome from the CCA would be a reversal of Rodney's conviction and for Rodney to be released from prison. In this event, the Bastrop County district attorney could still opt to take Rodney to trial again, in which case activists should demand that the DA drop Rodney's indictment completely.

In an interview following the stay, Rodney reflected on the stay of execution, saying:

I'm very optimistic that if the courts are willing to acknowledge this evidence that we have, because this evidence is not made up. If they're willing to acknowledge it, I feel like they will give me the better judgment on this.

The various options before the Court make the ongoing activist campaign for Rodney paramount. Rodney's family and supporters are prepared to carry on the fight. As Rodrick said at a rally in February, "If we don't stand up today, we're going to lay down tomorrow for anything they're going to make us lay down for. And I ain't a laying down kind of guy. I'm a fighter, I come from a family of fighters!"

The evidence in front of the court today, combined with the body of evidence gathered over the years, makes it clear that activists must demand nothing less than a full reversal of Rodney's conviction and that Texas must FREE RODNEY REED NOW!

First published in the New Abolitionist.

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