The Plight of Rodney Reed and the Failure of the Justice System

Claire Killian

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






In the south, the allegation of a black man raping a white woman is the same as a sentence. Through slavery, antebellum, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and even now, the prejudices and quick assumptions associated with this particular crime has cost many black men their lives. Like real life Emmett Till, or Harper Lee’s Tom Robinson, just the rumor of impropriety can kill innocent men.

This trend continues in the long and terrible story of Rodney Reed, and his delay of justice. In 1996 Reed was convicted of abducting, raping and strangling, 19-year old Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas. Reed, who is black, was convicted by an all white jury.

On April 22nd, 1996, Stites left her home, and fiancée Jimmy Fennell, to head to work at a grocery store 30 miles away, her shift was set to begin at 3:30 a.m. When Stites didn’t show up, her coworker called the cops, who later found her body on the side of the road, with the telltale signs of rape and strangling.

The original suspect was Stites fiancée, Fennell, but his DNA did not match that of the hair found on the body. The police determined that it did match Reeds. Reed did not become a person of interest in the investigation until about a year after the actual crime was committed, and by that time he was tied up in another court case. Reed was also charged in the abduction, beating, and kidnapping of Linda Schlueter, this attack happened around six months after Stites was found.

Due to the similarity in the cases, the police began to pursue Reed as a suspect. His DNA was already on file from another rape he was alleged to have committed. The DNA on file matched that of the hair found on Stites body, drawing Reed into the case even further. Reed has been considered a suspect in six different cases of rape (not including Stites), and he was only charged in one (Schlueter’s) , where he was acquitted shortly after.

Then began the trial, where the prosecution provided their infallible DNA evidence, and the story of Fennell and Stites as a happy couple. The defense pleaded desperately that other suspects, like Fennell, could have just as easily committed the crime, and argued that the hair found on Stites’ body did not match Reed’s. Reed did admit that he an Stites were having a consensual, on-going affair, a statement which was not confirmed at the time but has since been corroborated by friends and family of the victim. The overwhelming evidence, and Reed’s record of involvement in such cases, easily won over the all-white jury, who sentenced him to death.

Reed’s defense team claims that the trial was flawed, incomplete, and hastily done in order to convict a man everyone assumed was guilty. The belt, for example, which was used to strangle Stites was never tested for DNA evidence, despite numerous requests by the defense and the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to overturning false convictions. Forensic scientists working with Reed’s legal team also proposed that Stites could have been killed two hours before the police were notified, which would change the accepted timeline of the crime and make her time of death so that she was still at home when she was killed. Forensic scientists from the original 1996 trial have since retracted their statements about the accepted timeline of the crime, meaning that Reed’s team could be right in their new sequence of events.

In 2007, Stite’s fiancée, Jimmy Fennell, was accused of rape by a woman he detained as a police officer in Georgetown, Texas. He pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of kidnapping and improper sexual misconduct, and was sentenced to ten years in prison. Fennell was released in March of 2018. It was during his time in prison where Fennell is alleged to have admitted to killing Stites. Arthur Snow, a prisoner and member of the Aryan Brotherhood, signed an affidavit saying he heard Fennell say, “I had to kill my n****r-loving fiance.” In prison, rapists are at the bottom of the pecking order. Often, they are targeted and even killed, Snow claims that Fennell came to him and said this as a way of building trust so as to get the protection of the Aryan Brotherhood. Other witnesses have come forward, such as deputy sheriff Jim Clampit, who attended Stite’s funeral and heard Fennel say “you got what you deserved” over her casket.

The prosecution has been dismissive of new witnesses, questioning why they are coming forward now, and not then at the actual trial. They are also skeptical of why sworn statements have since been taken back. While their doubt is warranted, the seismic cultural shift in terms of how black people are perceived and treated must be taken into account. Since 1996, movements such as Black Lives Matter, and the organizations like the Innocence Project have been making waves in the legal attitudes towards black people, and changing the inherent biases towards them.

It has taken celebrities and senators alike to tweet, write to, and call out the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) for Reed to finally be recognized. The TCCA ordered an indefinite stay of execution for Reed, meaning he’s still technically on death row, he just doesn’t have a set execution date. This is to give his case time to be reviewed in court, and for new evidence to be examined, which has only recently come to light after being covered up by the prosecution.

Reed, who has maintained his innocence during his trial and sentence, has expressed hesitant positivity about the review. In an interview with NBC he said, “I am innocent in this case. Absolutely innocent. I am cautiously optimistic that something good has got to happen.” This case has been plagued with lies, racial profiling, and injustice, but now there is an opportunity to review it. The hopeful eyes of a nation are on this retrial.