By Sophie Lovering
Sophie Lovering is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and minoring in American Sign Language and Deaf Studies.
In 1996, a white woman named Stacey Stites was murdered in Bastrop, Texas . Following her death, investigators administered multiple polygraph tests to her fiancé, police officer Jimmy Fennell, who was found to be deceptive ; Fennell also had a history of violence against women . Although Fennell was initially the “prime suspect” in the case, a small amount of semen linked Stites to a black man named Rodney Reed . Two years after Stites’ death, Reed was charged with capital murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection . He was scheduled to die in Texas on November 20, 2019.
Leading up to Reed’s execution date, however, the public mobilized. Since Reed’s conviction, “a flood of new evidence” has called his guilt into question . A bipartisan coalition of Texas lawmakers, aided by Black Lives Matter activists and mega-celebrities, called for the cancellation or delay of Reed’s execution, citing previously ignored and incorrectly collected evidence: since his conviction, Reed has maintained that he and Stites had been involved in a consensual relationship prior to her death . Although initially it was said that their sexual conduct must have occurred at the time of the murder, forensic experts have since redacted that claim, arguing that his DNA had been left days before her death . DNA does not link Reed to the scene of the crime .
In addition to this growing reasonable doubt, racial prejudices are present in the case. Reed, a black man, was convicted by an all-white jury , what some claim to be a “Jim Crow trial” . As stated by Reed’s attorney Bryce Benjet, “the only thing left of the State’s case is the residual prejudice that this [consensual] relationship between a white woman and a black man could not have happened” .
Furthering Reed’s innocence is public suspicion that Fennell in fact murdered his fiancée. Following Reed’s conviction, Fennell was charged with kidnapping and improper conduct with a woman in custody . Fennell’s fellow law enforcement officers have claimed that Fennell told them things that made them question his innocence, including one claim that he told his co-worker about an incident where he was upset about his fiancée “f*cking a n*****” . Late in 2019, a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood and fellow prisoner disclosed that Fennell admitted his guilt of killing his fiancée for having an affair with a black man .
On November 15, 2019, just days before his scheduled execution, Reed’s death sentence was suspended indefinitely . The Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas halted his execution and ordered that the court that initially tried him consider new evidence .
With this newfound hope, and the support of politicians and celebrities, Reed’s case is likely to stay in the public eye, though it is long from over. What Reed’s case calls upon us to consider, however, is Texas’ use of the death penalty and its racial implications.
Since December 1982, Texas has executed 566 men and women, more than any other state . The death penalty is authorized by the federal government, but its scope has been narrowed over time . The U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for mentally disabled offenders through Atkins v. Virginia (2002), for juvenile offenders through Roper v. Simmons (2005), and for those convicted of raping a child where death was not the intended or actual result through Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008); these rulings stated that the execution of such offenders was unconstitutional as it qualified as cruel and unusual punishment . Although the death penalty is permitted on the federal level, many states have taken action to abolish the death penalty. The Delaware Supreme Court independenlty issued a decision that the death penalty violates the Sixth Amendement, as interpreted by the highest court . Washington’s Supreme Court also struck down the death penalty, calling it unconstitutional as it “imposed an arbitrary and racially biased manner” . Texas has taken no such action. Texas’ Penal Code Section 19.03 cites capital offenses, including murdering an individual while in the course of committing another crime. This inflated rate of death sentences has racial implications in that, over the past five years, over seventy percent of death sentences have been imposed on people of color, even though Black Americans comprise less than thirteen percent of Texas’ total population .
Just like the future of Rodney Reed and his case, the future of Texas’ death penalty remains unclear. Although it remains legal by federal and state law, it is under constant scrutiny for its widespread use and racial implications, both of which have served as justifications for the abolition of the death penalty in other states.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
 “Stop the Execution of Rodney Reed.” Innocence Project. Accessed November 16. 2019. http://interactive.innocenceproject.org/rodney-reed/.
 Free Rodney Reed. Accessed November 16. 2019. https://www.freerodneyreed.com/#about.
 Barajas, Michael. “The Movement to Free Rodney Reed Illustrates the Growing Unease Over Texas’ Use of the Death Penalty.” Texas Observer. November 11, 2019. https://www.texasobserver.org/free-rodney-reed-illustrates-unease-texas-death-penalty/.
 Fernandez, Manny and Richard A. Oppel Jr. “Court Stops Execution of Rodney Reed in Texas After Outcry.” The New York Times. November 15, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/us/rodney-reed-texas-execution.html.
 “States and Capital Punishment.” National Conference of State Legislatures. June 12, 2019. http://www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/death-penalty.aspx#U.S.%20Supreme%20Court%20Decisions.
 “Texas Death Penalty Facts.” Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Accessed November 16. 2019. https://tcadp.org/get-informed/texas-death-penalty-facts/.
Image source: The Intercept