Massoud Hayoun

A death delayed: Rodney Reed now eyes exoneration, end to ‘racist’ justice

On eve of his scheduled execution – now stayed – condemned man speaks to Al Jazeera on his case and the justice system

LIVINGSTON, Texas — Even if death-row inmate Rodney Reed, a black man sentenced in a racially charged trial, is exonerated, he will still have lost at least 19 years of his life.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from the Allen B. Polunsky Unit, or death row, in Texas, Reed said he believes he is a victim of systemic racism, in which the U.S. criminal justice system rushes the “half-cocked” trial and execution of innocents.

Texas was set to execute Reed on Thursday, a day after his interview with Al Jazeera. But after nearly two decades in prison and four attempts to appeal, the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals on Feb. 23 stayed his execution, citing new evidence potentially exonerating him that his attorneys brought to authorities’ attention over a year ago.

Reed, a 47-year-old from Bastrop is on death row for the 1996 abduction, rape and murder of Stacey Stites, a 19-year-old white woman. His attorneys with nonprofit advocacy group the Innocence Project requested that his case be heard again this last time amid developments that the lawyers say strongly suggest he is innocent.

Among those developments is that the forensic investigator in Reed’s original trial now says Reed’s semen, found on Stites’ body — previously a linchpin in the case against him — was likely from a consensual sexual encounter well before her death. 

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

Fennell declined to be interviewed.

Rodney Reed during a hearing at the Bastrop County Criminal Justice Center in Texas in 2014.
Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman / AP

Like many death-row inmates whose executions are stayed and even overturned, the decision came at what was, for Reed, the eleventh hour.

“I’m glad to have this chance to put this information before the courts, but as far as me jumping up and down and parading around, it’s nothing like that,” said Reed.

He has four grandchildren — two he has never met. No matter how much restitution the state would pay if he is exonerated, he says he will never have the life he could have had were it not for what he calls his unfair trial.

“Throughout the years, we have accumulated a lot of evidence that should have been enough to vindicate me before the courts, but it seemed like every time we get something new, the courts end up shooting it down somehow.”

The state denied previous requests for appeal because it refuses to recognize its culpability, Reed said.

“As far as the system admitting that they’re wrong, they’re not going to do that,” he said coolly. His tone is subdued, no different from when his execution was rapidly approaching, he says. He has made peace with the fact that he may still be killed, if only because there’s nothing he can do in a legal system he believes is stacked against him and other black men — from law enforcement to the courts.

Over 4 percent of people sentenced to death are not guilty, according to a report published by the National Academy of Sciences in April 2014.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to comment on Reed’s stay and allegations that race played a role in earlier decisions not to stay his execution or reinvestigate the case. The department referred Al Jazeera to the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which also declined comment. Spokeswoman Katherine Wise told Al Jazeera by email that the office “does not comment on capital litigation cases beyond what is in the documents the state’s attorneys file in court.”

Bastrop District Attorney Bryan Goertz, who previously denied Reed’s petitions for an appeal that would allow for further investigation into the case, did not respond to an interview request.

Reed says he keeps up with the news as a means of maintaining his sanity while awaiting his death. To him, although he’s still alive, his ordeal is not unlike that of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen who was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, or Eric Garner, who was killed by a white police officer’s chokehold in New York. In both cases, the officers who killed the men were not indicted by grand juries.

“It all falls in the lines of race,” Reed said. “Before, I didn’t really look at it that way. You know, I grew up as a military brat, and a lot of my friends are Caucasian. My friends are white. My kids are half white.”

“The jury was all white,” he said, referring to his 1996 trial. “But I felt like, if they heard the evidence, that that is what’s supposed to matter.”

But at various points in his hearings, Reed said the prosecution expressed shock that the defendant would suggest he was having a consensual relationship with Stites. He and Benjet said they saw that as an indication that certain segments of Texas’ society were still prejudiced against the idea of a black man having a relationship with a white woman.

Still, he says he’s “optimistic” that he will be vindicated after a Texas court’s recent decision to review evidence accumulated over the past decade pointing to his innocence. That decision followed three previous denied appeals to stay his execution and reinvestigate the case, including retesting DNA collected from the scene of the crime with modern technology.

In one example of a potential innocent killed by the state, the Marshall Project, a group that investigates failures of the U.S. criminal justice system, in August 2014 released an investigative report that showed Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, who may not have been guilty, in December 2004. He was accused of killing his three children in an arson attack, but subsequently revealed reports found that the evidence for the crime was likely not substantial enough to convict.

“I know he was innocent,” Reed said, referring to Willingham. Reed said Willingham, in conversation during their time together on death row, told him, “‘I wish I had your case.’” Reed disagreed, saying, “I wouldn’t wish this case on anyone. It revolves around race.’”

Death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun whose autobiographical account of her relationship with a prisoner inspired the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking,” told Al Jazeera in an earlier interview about Reed’s case that in her years of research on U.S. executions, she has found “the innocent get thrown in with the guilty all the time.”

“Anytime a human being is killed, it’s the worst of the worst. [The executed inmates] are all unique universes that are being destroyed,” she said.

She agreed with Reed that race played a role in his conviction. “The black man is automatically someone to be the one to die. The whole assumption of innocence is on the white person — who happens to be a policeman. That gives him the double assurance of people that he wouldn’t have killed his own fiancée.”

Prejean feels Reed’s case is par for the course in Texas and other states with high rates of capital punishment and where black males make up a large share of the prison population. She 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.

VIDEO: Rodney Reed

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