The Case Shocking the Country: The Guilt or Innocence of Rodney Reed

Paisha Watkins, Staff Writer

On April 23, 1996, 19 year old Stacy Stites was found strangled to death on the side of the road in small-town Bastrop, Texas. One year later, a 29 year old black man, Rodney Reed, was convicted of her murder. Without ample evidence, Reed was sentenced to death the following year on the charge of capital murder, abduction, and rape. For the past 21 years, Reed has been awaiting his execution on death row for a crime he may not have even committed.

If Rodney has been on death row for over two decades, why is it so controversial now? Reed’s case has gained national attention for the argument that Reed may not even be guilty. The case has gained so much attention that celebrities like Rihanna, Oprah, and Meek Mill have attempted to get Texas Governor Greg Abott to intervene. Kim Kardashian even questioned, “How can you execute a man when, since his trial, substantial evidence that would exonerate Rodney Reed has come forward and even implicates the other person of interest?” The reason for the public’s strong reaction to Rodney’s trial is there is only one piece of evidence that could possibly exonerate him but there is considerable evidence against Stite’s fiancee. According to The New York Times, “Mr. Reed was arrested based mostly on DNA tests. He said he and Ms. Stites had been having an affair in secret, which would explain his DNA being recovered from her body.” However, The New York Times also explains that Stite’s fiance Mr. Fennell, “ is a former police officer who was released from prison in 2018; he pleaded guilty in 2008 to kidnapping a woman he had encountered while on duty. The woman said he had also raped her.” Not only is Fennell a suspicious man already with accusations of rape and abduction on his record, but there are also witnesses of his unsavory behavior towards Stites. According to Murderpedia, Mary Blackwell, a fellow police officer, told the court that “ she remembers that Fennell remarked to several class members he would kill his girlfriend by strangling her if he was ever to find that she had cheated on him…Blackwell testified that Fennell said he would use a belt. Stites was found strangled with a belt.” Not only did Fennell threaten the life of Stites if she cheated, but he threatened her life by the exact way she was murdered. A theory is that Fennell learned of Stites’ affair with Rodney and acted just the way he said he would. The striking evidence against Fennell is clear, and yet Rodney is still the one on death row for simple DNA findings that he explained the reason for in court.

Another reason this case is acquiring notice is because of the prejudice surrounding it. The Innocence Project notes, “Reed, a black man, was found guilty of murdering Stites, a white woman by an all-white jury.” Racial bias throughout court systems across the country is clear where decades have proven African-American’s oppression through the court and through the death penalty. Highlander News argues against the death penalty and examines how “Black defendants are nearly twice as likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants, and murderers of white victims were 4.3 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those with black victims.” Racism is not only present in everyday life, but also in intense cases that will decide life or death. The racial prejudice present in Rodney Reed’s case could be the reason that he is still sitting in that rotting jail cell today.

The imperfections in the court’s ruling against Rodney is clearly evident to anyone who takes the time to look into it. Dr. Phil stated, “I don’t think it’s a question of whether he’s guilty or not guilty…I think the question is, has he had a fair trial with a full airing of all of the evidence. And I think the answer to that question, in my opinion, is not just ‘no’ but ‘hell no.’”

Over 2 million people have signed a petition to push back Rodney’s execution date and it worked. On Nov. 20, Reed was set to be executed, but on Wednesday Nov. 13, just days before the date, Greg Abott, the Governor of Texas tweeted, “For those sending messages about Rodney Reed please note that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Rodney Reed’s execution and sent his case back to the trial court for further review.” However, the fight is far from over. Reed is not the only one who has received an unfair trial. An interview in NBCDFW with Mike Ware, an attorney and executive director and co-founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, says “It’s fair to say that there are thousands of innocent people in Texas prisons.”

As Reed’s case is still awaiting an official say of innocence or still guilty, people are continuing the fight against not only Rodney’s innocence, but also the death penalty, and racism in courts as well.