Still speaking out for Rodney Reed
THREE YEARS ago, Caitlin Adams, a retired nurse, decided to move to Bastrop, Texas after her health took a turn for the worse.
She had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular degenerative disease that has no cure. Today, Caitlin has become progressively weaker--she now has to travel in a wheelchair, and she mostly lets her computer speak for her. Back when she first moved, however, her symptoms were more mild, and she was still able to enjoy one of her favorite things to do--ride her bike.
It was on one of these long bike rides in her new neighborhood, with no particular destination in mind, that she pedaled past Rodney Reed's house. Outside the house, a big banner hung, reading, "Innocent on Death Row: Free Rodney Reed." When she got home, Caitlin set out searching the Internet for information about Rodney and his case.
She was struck by what she learned. Reed had been convicted and sent to death row for the rape and murder of Stacey Stites in 1996. The main evidence against him was a DNA match from sperm found on the victim's body.
While this might seem like "case closed," Caitlin soon learned it was anything but. Rodney and 11 other people who were ready to testify at his trial said that Rodney and Stacey had been seeing each other on and off--and Reed said he had been with Stacey the night before she was killed.
So who did kill Stacey Stites? She had been engaged to marry Jimmy Fennell, a police officer in Bastrop. According an affidavit from a police cadet, Fennell had said he would strangle his girlfriend--with a belt, in order not to leave fingerprints--if he ever found out she was having an affair. This is exactly how Stites was killed.
Fennell later failed two polygraph tests about the murder, yet he was never pursued as a suspect. The apartment he shared with Stites was never searched. The truck belonging to Fennell that Stites drove the night she was killed was returned to Fennell six days after it was found. Fennel sold the truck the next day.
Though the state claims that Rodney kidnapped Stacey in the truck, no fingerprints of his were ever found in or on it--only Stites' and Fennell's. There was no fingerprint evidence on any of the debris around the roadside site where the body was found--curiously, though, DNA belonging to officer friends of Jimmy Fennell turned up on some beer cans at the crime scene.
Fennell is now in prison on a 10-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2009 to aggravated kidnapping and the sexual assault of a woman while on duty.
Reed's lawyers have been fighting in the courts for Rodney to get a new trial where this evidence could be heard. The judge who denied Reed's direct appeal is Reva Townslee-Corbett, the daughter of the judge who presided at the first trial and sent Reed to death row. It's hard to see why this isn't viewed as a conflict of interest.
Reed's federal habeas corpus petition was denied in June of last year. His lawyers are in the process of preparing an appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
These denials come despite the compelling new evidence, including a statement from medical examiner Roberto Bayardo, who had testified for the prosecution at the trial, who now says he doesn't believe Stacey was raped. He says he agrees with the conclusions of other forensics experts that the sperm matching Reed was likely a day or more old, and not "recent" as he said at trial.
As Bryce Benjet, one of Reed's lawyers from the Innocence Project in New York City, said:
The crux of Dr. Bayardo's statement is that the state twisted his opinions at trial to falsely accuse Rodney. Dr. Bayardo's opinion is one of a number of forensic experts who have now disagreed with the state's theory that Rodney raped and murdered Stacey. In over a decade of litigation, the state has never presented a single expert witness to contradict any of the scientific opinions exonerating Rodney.
CAITLIN ADAMS had no idea when she made the move to Bastrop that she would soon be focusing much of her energies on trying to free a man trapped on death row. But that's exactly what she has done.
After seeing the sign on the Reed's house in Bastrop and learning more about the case, one day, Caitlin stopped at the house to speak with family members who were out front. She met Rodney's mother, Sandra Reed, and a deep bond was forged. Caitlin learned about the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and attended its annual convention. She began writing to Rodney, and six months later, she took her first trip with Sandra to visit him.
Caitlin continues to make the trips, though this has become more difficult with her health worsening. She now has to travel using a wheelchair--her bike-riding days are behind her. She also has a diminishing use of her speech. But that hasn't stopped her from visiting Rodney--nor from speaking out for him as well.
Caitlin has harnessed all the latest technology to "speak" for her, using an app on her iPad, which she fought to get permission to bring into the prison to be able to communicate with Rodney. Caitlin is also the author of the blog "Tales from Death Row: Justice for Rodney Reed," posted at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's website. The blog is a heartfelt account of her visits to Reed and her ponderings about the criminal justice system and the Reed case.
April 3rd marked 16 years in prison for Rodney Reed--15 of them have been spent on death row.
When he went to death row, Rodney was 29 years old and the father of three children: Aaron, Christopher and Anthony. Reed writes that the hardest thing about being on death row is knowing that his children had to grow without him and that they are "all young men now. I am now a proud grandfather of four beautiful grandbabies: Jaymeson, Marlei, Jeremiah and Avery. I pray for the day I can hold them in my arms."
Rodney describes Caitlin as "tenacious and passionate...Caitlin is an absolutely amazing being. The light that was once dimly lit--in my life here on Texas death row--has now become as bright as a raging fire and only seems to get brighter every day. It seems she has the will to make the sun shine."
I RECENTLY asked Caitlin a few questions about Rodney Reed and why she's participating in the struggle, even as her health deteriorates:
WHY ARE you so convinced of his Rodney Reed's innocence?
BECAUSE OF reading media accounts, court documents, evidence documents, police documents, autopsy reports, seeing the documentary State v. Reed, and everything I could get my grubby little hands on. I've spoken with Rodney's family, his lead attorney Bryce Benjet, friends, people who knew Rodney and Ms. Stites were seeing each other. I can come to no other conclusion.
There is no evidence of murder that implicates Rodney. None. The state offered no motive, just a random crime of passion, which is a bit of an oxymoron, to put it mildly. A man on foot overtakes a truck, kidnaps the driver and doesn't leave a single fingerprint or any physical evidence in the truck or anywhere else--that's the state's theory as it was presented at trial.
When the lack of fingerprint evidence came up at trial, the prosecution presented a T-shirt, claiming that Rodney used it to wipe his and only his fingerprints from the truck. A bit problematic in my book, but what makes it even more problematic is that said T-shirt was found at the scene with Ms. Stites body, not with the truck at the high school parking lot.
Every timeline in this case, every conjecture by the prosecution in their theory of the crime, was based on Jimmy Fennell's version of events: where Ms. Stites was last seen alive, when she left for work, that she was driving the truck.
When, statistically, we know that crimes of this kind, are in the vast majority of cases committed by someone the victim knows, such as a husband, boyfriend or ex, to not search the apartment is tantamount to "aiding and abetting." To simply assume that the killer acted alone, without investigating, thereby clearing Mr. Fennell of any culpability, is ludicrous.
The entire case is riddled with just this kind of illogic. When I first started looking into Rodney's case, I was looking at things as much as possible as a juror. And from the start, there was so much that simply didn't make sense to me. A book could and should be written about the all the ways the system failed so miserably in Rodney's case.
WHAT HAVE you learned about the death penalty and our criminal justice system that you didn't know before?
IT IS capriciously applied, it is racist, it is reserved for the poor, and it is plain wrong. It is the most premeditated murder ever committed. As for the criminal justice system, it is a flawed, fractured system that works if you have money, power or privilege. If it works and you don't have any of those things, you're darn lucky! A favorite quote of James Baldwin comes to mind, "[I]f a poor man in trouble with the law receives justice, one can suppose heavenly intervention."
Before I began this sojourn, I "knew" all these things. Now, I know them in a way that shakes me to the core and that lets me know I must do what I can for as long as I'm breathing!
HOW DO you continue to pour so much of what you have left into this fight?
WELL, THAT'S a question that assumes that every word I write, every visit I make, every everything, doesn't repay me all the energy I invest. I will put that assumption to rest. I get way more than I give. My friendship with Rodney and my advocacy on his behalf keeps my heart full, my mind active, my fingers busy, my soul grateful beyond words. I couldn't be more blessed.
HOW IS Rodney holding up in the face of the recent denials of his appeals?
RODNEY IS an incredibly strong, resilient person. He is very grounded in his faith and in his innocence. At the same time, this setback has been very difficult. Every denial is one more step closer to an execution date, and that is simply a daunting weight to bear. The strain of that weight is evident. Support from the outside is like oxygen, manna--it is crucial to help him bear that weight.
WHAT CAN people do if they want to be involved and try to help Rodney Reed?
LEARN AS much as you can about the case. Get involved with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. If you're a social media person, "like" Rodney's Facebook page--share posts from the page with friends, and encourage them to "like" it. Sign Rodney's petition. Follow the CEDP (@nodeathpenalty) and Rodney (@Justice4Rodney) on Twitter: tweet about the case, share news articles and links.
Talk to friends, family and acquaintances about Rodney's story. Keep informed about developments in the case and new opportunities to advocate for and support Rodney by checking out CEDP's website. If you are a praying person, pray. If you are a meditating person, hold Rodney's freedom in the light of your meditation. Every action from the heart bears fruit.
IS THERE anything else you would like to say?
Just a big thank you to all who fight the good fight for justice for all! Namaste.
First published at the New Abolitionist.