As President Obama proclaimed at the Selma memorial march, race relations may have improved in the last fifty years, but there is still much work to be done.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Rodney Reed.
Reed, who is black, was convicted in Texas by an all-white jury in the rape and murder of Stacey Stites, a 19-year-old white woman.
Reed has been on Texas’ death row since 1998. Just last week, after nearly two decades in prison and with a March 5th execution date looming, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution based on new evidence that his attorneys at the Innocence Project say could exonerate him.
Reed’s case is a classic textbook example of how innocent people wind up on death row: bad lawyering, the failure of the police to investigate other leads, possible prosecutorial misconduct, junk forensic science and, perhaps most significantly, the taint of racial bias.
On its face, the prosecution’s case against Reed was simple. Reed’s DNA was found inside Stites’ murdered body. Therefore, he must have killed her.
Reed’s semen was the only physical evidence that linked him to the crime. His fingerprints were not on Stites’ truck, nor were they on the belt used by the perpetrator to strangle her. There were no hairs, no other biological evidence, and no witnesses who’d seen them together. Just the DNA. DNA, which Reed explained, was not from the day of her death, but from a sexual encounter with Stites from the day before her murder.
Reed consistently claimed that he had been sexually involved with Stites for months before her death, and that he had nothing whatsoever to do with her murder. Yet, at trial, Reed’s lawyers did very little to establish Reed’s relationship with Stites, even though there were multiple witnesses who could have attested to that relationship.
There also was another clear suspect: a white police officer and Stites’ fiance, Jimmy Fennell. As one witness, Mary Blackwell, told the court, Fennell once said during a police academy class that he would strangle his girlfriend with a belt if she cheated on him. Stites was strangled to death with a belt.
Fennell was later convicted in an unrelated kidnapping and sexual assault case of a twenty-year old woman.
But the police focused on Reed as their suspect. They never searched the apartment shared by Fennell and Stites. They returned the truck to Fennell six days after the murder and before full forensic testing was complete. Fennell promptly sold the truck and any potential evidence that went with it.
And the police pursued the case against Reed.
The lack of physical evidence against Reed in this death penalty case is deeply troubling. But so is the racial bias that pervaded every aspect of this case. That bias started with the taboo of an inter-racial relationship between a black man and a white woman in a small-town in Texas. It was compounded by an all-white jury. And it was consistent with the disturbing pattern of racial disparity found in so many capital cases involving a black-defendant and a white victim.
Maybe Reed will get lucky. Twelve innocent people have been exonerated and released from Texas’ death row. 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationally – sometimes within weeks – or even hours – of their scheduled execution. 78 of the exonerated were black.
But innocent men appear to also have been executed.
Cameron Todd Willingham, who proclaimed his innocence until his last breath, was executed in Texas for the arson-murder of his three children. The evidence against Willingham was junk science – experts now say the fire was accidental. Carlos DeLuna was executed in Texas for a murder that now seems fairly certain to have been committed by another convicted murderer named Carlos Herrera.
Reed should not become another Texas tragedy. Reed’s death sentence – and nineteen long years of deprivation on death row — is far too severe a penalty for a man who appears guilty of nothing more than taking part in a consensual interracial sexual relationship.