Image Credit: Oprah Winfrey Network
The case of Rodney Reed has been brought to light as new evidence questions the plausibility of the Texan court verdict. In April 1996, Stacey Stites’ body was found on the side of a country road in Bastrop, Texas. She had been strangled by her own belt.
In 1998, Rodney Reed was convicted of the murder and rape of the 19 year old as the three sperm cells found inside her body matched his DNA. This sole evidence was enough to persuade the all-white jury of his guilt.
The prosecution claimed that Reed raided Stites’ car on her way to work, and brutally raped and murdered her without leaving any traces of his DNA. Despite his case that the two were having an affair for months and had had consensual sex the day before she died, he was found guilty due to Karen Blakely’s testimony. The Public Safety Serologist argued that his sperm could not have survived in her body for so long. His execution is now due to take place on 20 November.
However, the evidence discovered during the 21 years of Reed’s imprisonment could potentially clear his name and point the crime back to the original suspect, Jimmy Fennell.
The key expert witnesses have recanted their testimonies. Brady Mills, Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Lab director, has recognised flaws in Blakely’s logic. She testified that sperm cells could not survive in the body for more than 26 hours but it was later contested that they can stay intact up to three days after intercourse.
Dr Roberto Bayardo, Former Travis County medical examiner, has also withdrawn his statement regarding the time of the victim’s death. He had previously estimated Stites’ death to have occurred at 3am. However, the lividity indicates Stites was positioned face-down for four to five hours after death, before being relocated. This means she died before midnight, during the time that Fennell claimed to have been with Stites, his fiancé. The retraction of such crucial determinants on the final verdict could exonerate Reed.
This was a turning point; Reed’s attorneys pointed to Fennell as the suspect. He was a white cop who, a few years after the trial, served ten years in prison for kidnapping and improper sexual conduct with a woman while on duty. Affidavits filed against him firmly indicate him as a new suspect. A woman Fennell dated described him as “possessive and jealous”, and “extremely prejudiced” against black people. Law enforcement officers have sworn to have heard Fennell complain about his fiancé cheating with a black man, and mutter “you got what you deserved” at her funeral.
This case has grown into a wider issue of racism and corruption. The 2016 investigative report by KXAN news team exposed Bayardo’s scheme to increase his income. He had been conducting autopsies for 45 other counties, pocketing $2.6 million. It is therefore plausible to believe he was incentivised to testify in favour of the prosecution for financial gain. The Texas court refused to reconsider the case and the Bastrop police department have shown lack of effort in collecting evidence, suspicions of a cover-up are increasing.
With 20 November nearing, questions about the much controversial issue of death penalty are being raised. While this policy is implemented in many republican states, democratic states are more sceptical of its use. Bernie Sanders commented: “we have got to join the rest of the developed world and abolish the death penalty. Too many innocent people, particularly people of colour, get caught up in this unjust policy.” With Reed’s case capturing the public’s empathy, this stance is held by many American citizens. 2.8 million have signed a petition demanding Texas governor Greg Abbot to pause Reed’s death row.
Reed, his family, and supporters face an anxious wait for news until his scheduled execution. Many continue to take action across the country in the hope that Greg Abbot will re-examine the rationality of the 1998 verdict.