In the United States, the death penalty remains a contentious topic. Many of its opponents point out that the criminal justice system is riddled with biases impacting everything from who is arrested to the trial to sentencing itself, and argue that a system with so many problems cannot be trusted to decide to put people to death. Case in point: Texas just might execute an innocent man this month. Rodney Reed's controversial case has gained national attention of late as people work against the clock to save his life.
For the past two decades, Reed has sat on death row after being convicted for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas. His execution is set for Nov. 20. Throughout his sentence, Reed has maintained his innocence — and recently, a new witness came forward to say that it was Jimmy Fennell, Stites's fiancé, a former police officer and original suspect in the case, who was actually responsible for her murder.
In 2008, Fennell pled guilty to charges of kidnapping and "improper sexual activity" with a person in custody. According to The Austin Chronicle, Fennell kidnapped and raped a 20-year-old woman who he met while answering a call on duty.
Last month, the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization committed to exonerating wrongly incarcerated people, filed for clemency with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on Reed's behalf. The application asked that the Board recommend Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) grant a commutation of Reed's death sentence, which would reduce punishment.
The application cited the sworn affidavit of Arthur Snow, an Aryan Brotherhood member who served time with Fennell following his arrest. "Jimmy said his fiancée had been sleeping around with a black man behind his back," Snow wrote. "Toward the end of the conversation Jimmy said confidently, 'I had to kill my n*****- loving fiancée." Snow said he thought Fennell confided in him because Fennell figured Snow, as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, would be impressed.
Although Reed said he and Stites were in a consensual relationship, nobody would corroborate that information at the time of his trial. Now, the Innocence Project says new witnesses, including Stites's own cousin, have backed up the claim. The Innocence Project also says there are major issues with the forensic evidence used to convict Reed — namely, that the murder weapon has never been tested for DNA, and that the state's three forensic experts from the trial submitted affidavits stating the original time of death as inaccurate.
Getting clemency in Texas is extremely difficult, though. In 2017, 92 Texans applied for it. While the Board recommended 16 people for clemency, Abbott only granted it to six — all of whom were convicted of just low-level crimes.
Reed was previously arrested for attempting to rape and murder then-19-year-old Linda Schlueter near the same area where Stites's body was found, CNN reported. Schlueter was among six women who said Reed attacked or sexually assaulted them.
When it comes to who receives the death penalty itself, reports show that race absolutely plays a factor. The American Civil Liberties Union wrote that people of color overall account for 43% of total executions since 1976, and 55% of those awaiting execution. The numbers aren't much better for Texas specifically: Although Black people make up less than 13% of Texas's population, they comprise 44.2$ of death row inmates, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
In 1992, the United States General Accounting Office stated that “in 82% of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.” The Innocence Projected noted that race played a factor in Reed's case: Reed is Black, Stites was white, and Reed was convicted by an all-white jury.
With Reed's execution date approaching, his best bet for receiving clemency seems to be through increasing public pressure. There are multiple online petitions calling for Reed to be freed, including freerodneyreed.com which has received over 2 million signatures. Some celebrities have also spoken up in support, including rapper Meek Mill and Kim Kardashian. Notably, Beyoncé, who is from Texas, added a link to a Change.org petition to stop Reed's execution on her website.
She also wrote a message to Abbott directly. "Please take a hard look at the substantial evidence in the Rodney Reed case that points to his innocence," she wrote on her website. "Be honest. Be fair. Give him back his life."