'Dead Man Walking' nun raises voice against execution of black inmate

Barring intervention by Texas, Rodney Reed will be executed on March 5 for a crime many say he didn't commit

Death row inmate Rodney Reed
Texas Department of Criminal Justice / AP

Death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun whose autobiographical account of her relationship with a prisoner inspired the 1995 blockbuster film “Dead Man Walking,” is trying to save a black Texas death row inmate from what she calls the “incurable racism” of the U.S. legal system. 

Rodney Reed, a 47-year-old from Bastrop, Texas, is set to be executed on March 5 for the 1996 abduction, rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites. His defense attorneys have so far unsuccessfully requested, first in early 2014 and again on Thursday, that DNA collected at the scene be retested with modern technology amid developments that the lawyers — together with Prejean and even one of the victim’s relatives — say point to Reed’s possible innocence. 

Among those developments is the forensic investigator in Reed’s original trial now saying Reed’s semen, found on the corpse — previously a lynchpin in the case against him — was likely from a sexual encounter well before Stites’ death. 

Prejean says state and local authorities’ ongoing refusal to further investigate Reed’s case is par for the course in the American legal system and society. 

“If you don’t equally value your citizens in life, you won’t value them in death,” she told Al Jazeera on Saturday, referring to the what some rights advocates across the country call white police officers’ extrajudicial killings last year of black men including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. 

Prejean said that in the 1987 case McClesky v. Kemp, Supreme Court justices acknowledged that “race plays a role in the death penalty, but they said that it would be too costly to remedy it. You have the highest court of the land acknowledging racism in the justice system, and saying it’s too costly to fix it.”

“That’s all the fabric of the legal system, that we have incurable racism,” she said. 

Prejean on Sunday was set to join a Quaker service organized by the Friends Meeting of Austin, Texas, designed to draw attention to Reed’s case. “For 10 years, the Meeting has been very active working on the death penalty issue,” said Walter Long, who is a Meeting member, an attorney who represents clients on death row and director of the Texas After Violence Project, an oral history project on the death penalty and murder.

Participants in the Meeting on Sunday planned to send a letter, seen by Al Jazeera, to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, citing the “sanctity of life” as a reason to explore Reed’s “possible” innocence.  

In the recent signs pointing to that possible innocence — and in authorities’ alleged lack of action to return to the question of Reed’s capital sentence — Long sees “a conflict there at the heart of every death penalty case that tends to make the adjudication of that case fundamentally unfair. The state is driven by the goal of carrying out the punishment.” 

At Reed’s trial in the 1990s, forensic expert Roberto Bayardo said he found Reed’s semen on Stites’ corpse — one of the principle facts used by the prosecution to prove Reed’s guilt. But Reed has said that he had a consensual relationship with Stites. A habeas corpus brief filed in court on Thursday by Reed’s lawyers with legal nonprofit organization Innocence Project says that Bayardo has since retracted his opinion, and “now admits that the forensic evidence suggests consensual intercourse between Mr. Reed and Ms. Stites more than 24 hours before her death.” This matches Reed’s account that they had a sexual encounter the day before her demise. 

In January 2014, Reed’s attorneys requested that DNA from items found at the scene — including Stites’ shirt and a belt used to strangle her — be tested. That request has been denied by the Bastrop County District Court. Amid negotiations with authorities, “we said, ‘We’ll pay for it — what do you have to lose?” said Bryce Benjet, one of Reed’s attorneys, adding that his former defense lawyers in the original trial that resulted in Reed’s conviction failed to mount a sufficient fight on their client’s behalf. 

State and local Bastrop authorities “aren’t interested in knowing the answers,” Benjet said. The Bastrop Sheriff’s Department, Bastrop District Attorney Bryan Goertz and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had not responded to requests for comment by the time of publication. 

Stites’ first cousin Kay Hart, whose parents the victim lived with during high school, told Al Jazeera on Saturday that she also believes Reed is innocent. She said she has written to the Texas governor and other state authorities, asking for a retrial and further investigation into the death of her relative. 

“Having an innocent man executed doesn’t bring Stacey back, for certain. It doesn’t represent justice,” Hart said, explaining that members of her family have different views on Reed and on the death penalty. The majority, she said, oppose capital punishment for Reed and want a deeper investigation into the circumstances of Stites’ death. 

“We think it’s not just,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter what we think about the death penalty.” 

Family members had seen Stites well before her death at a local Dairy Queen restaurant with someone they later believed to be Reed, Hart said, adding that he felt this could help corroborate Reed’s contention that he and Stites had a relationship. “She didn’t introduce him, likely because she was embarrassed,” as she already had a fiancé. 

Stites’ fiancé at the time of her death, Jimmy Fennell, a white police officer, was a suspect in Stites’ death until Reed’s conviction, Benjet and local news reports said. In 2008, Fennell was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the abduction and rape of a young woman while on duty, local newspaper The Austin Chronicle said.

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