By Hooman Hedayati
About 11 years ago, on a Sunday morning before sunrise, someone dumped the body of 20-year-old Stacey Stites off the side of a road in the small town of Bastrop, Texas. Rodney Reed, a black man from Bastrop, was convicted of her murder by an all-white jury, despite the strong evidence linking other people, including Stites' fiance Jimmy Fennell, to the murder. Last week, Fennell, who is now a police officer in Georgetown, Texas, was indicted by a grand jury on a charge of sexually assaulting a woman in custody at gunpoint, and he was placed on administrative leave from his job. At the time of Stites' death, Fennell was a police officer in Giddings, a town just east of Bastrop.
The amount of evidence pointing to Fennell in Stites' murder case is overwhelming. In two polygraph tests taken after Stites's murder, Fennell failed the question, "Did you strangle Stacy Stites?" According to a May 13, 1998, Department of Public Service report, fresh beer cans found at the crime scene contained DNA from Stites and two of Fennell's friends, police officers David Hall and Ed Salmela (the original investigator for the case). Furthermore, the truck alledgedly used to transport Stites' body contained fingerprints from only Fennell and Stites and was handed over to Fennell the day it was discovered. Fennell sold the truck the next day.
But it was Reed who was charged with Stites's murder. Reed's case is anything but unique in a criminal justice system marked by race and class bias. The racial tension in Bastrop was so intense during the trial that Reed's original trial lawyers, who were also black, were afraid to stay in Bastrop overnight. Reed's case also highlights the consequences of interracial dating in the South, decades after end of segregation. The main evidence linking Reed to the murders is a semen sample containing Reed's DNA, which was taken from the scene of the crime. That can easily be explained by the sexual relationship he and Stites allegedly had before her death.
Today, black men constitute little more than 12 percent of the nation's population but occupy nearly half of the spots on U.S. death rows. Nearly all of those sentenced to death can't afford to hire lawyers and thus rely on notoriously inadequate court-appointed attorneys or public defenders who don't have the necessary resources to investigate and defend capital cases.
Reed has been sitting on death row for more than 10 years for a crime he very likely did not commit. The Bastrop County prosecutors should open the case and start a new investigation into his claims of innocence. In the meantime, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which has Reed's case in their hands, should order a new trial in which the jury can hear all of the new evidence.
Visit www.freerodneyreed.org for more information about the case and how to get involved with the campaign to save Rodney Reed.
Hedayati is a government junior and member of Campaign to End the Death Penalty.