Rodney Reed has spent the past 22 years in prison after being convicted of the 1996 murder of Stacy Stites. He is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on November 20th, but if his high-profile supporters like Rhianna, Kim Kardashian, Dr. Phil, and a bipartisan group of Texas legislators get their way, Texas Governor Greg Abbot will grant a 30-day reprieve and consider Reed’s case for commutation.
Reed’s story is the focus of the first episode of the ninth season of the Wrongful Conviction podcast, hosted by Jason Flom, an activist and founding board member of the Innocence Project. The details of the case are straight out of a Harper Lee novel. Immediately following Stites’ death, her fiancé — police officer Jimmy Fennell — was the primary suspect. But as soon as the forensic investigation found Reed’s intact spermatozoa inside her body, he was arrested for her murder. Now-discredited science — that spermatozoa could only survive for 24 hours once discharged — was the entire basis for his conviction, working under the assumption that Reed, a black man, must have raped and then murdered Stites, a white woman.
In reality, Reed and Stites were involved in a romantic relationship at the time of her death, and he claims that they had consensual sex the day before she disappeared, and sperm can survive outside the body for up to 72 hours after it is released. All three of the state’s experts from the 1998 trial have disavowed their former testimony, including former Travis County Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo, who conducted the initial investigation and in 2012 claimed that the state misconstrued his testimony. Then, in October 2019, Fennell’s prison mate and Aryan Brotherhood member, Arthur Snow, provided a sworn affidavit stating that Fennell confessed to the murder. (Fennell’s lawyers have denied that this confession ever happened.) Other witnesses have also come forward claiming that they have information to exonerate Reed, including members of Stites’ family.
With only days to go before his scheduled execution, Rolling Stone spoke with Flom about Reed, the podcast, and what people can do to advocate for the wrongfully convicted.
Can you give a brief overview of what’s going on with Rodney Reed and what makes this particular case unique?
This case has galvanized public interest support and outrage in a way that I can’t recall any other case doing in my memory. And that’s an interesting thing to think about. I think the factors in this case are outrageous, but not unique. Because in this case, you have a number of factors that are common in wrongful conviction cases, including official misconduct, incompetent defense work, [and] sloppy forensic analysis.
Tunnel vision is a tremendous factor that led to his wrongful conviction. And I think maybe one of the things that’s really caused this to catch on is the fact that there’s an element of old-school racism at play, where you had a black man and a white woman having a consensual relationship. The fiancé was white and it was an all white jury. It’s like a bad movie.
Rodney was explaining to me: not only was it an all white jury, but it was made up of people who were older, and his feeling is that that was a strategy on the part of the prosecution team. If you can think that through to its logical conclusion or whatever you want to call it, that would mean that you have people who grew up in the deep South in a different generation who would be more inclined to want to convict a person of color.
You also have a guy who’s on death row for a crime in which there is not only no physical evidence that he committed this crime, but also overwhelming evidence that he didn’t, and it’s scientific. And now, of course, you have [an alleged] confession from the original suspect, Jimmy Fennell.
That’s not even all of it. I mean there’s so much to this case. It amounts to something that would cause outrage…I have this sick feeling that what we’ve done as a society is we’ve taken lynchings and moved them indoors. It hasn’t gone away…You can call it a lynching and call it murder, but the state has to know that he’s innocent.
What do you think is happening on the state’s end? How are they not seeing or responding to the scientific evidence?
All I can do is speculate. I don’t understand it. At this point, it’s a truly bipartisan thing on top of everything else. When the hell do you have everyone from Beyoncé or Oprah to Ted Cruz, all going ‘Stop!’ And what boggles my mind is that the governor — he’s limited in his options. He can either execute him, as I understand, or he can create a 30-day stay. So it’s not like if his options were either send them home or execute them. It’d be a little bit easier to understand why he would be hesitant. All everyone’s doing is saying, ‘Grant the thing.’
When did you decide to start the ninth season of the podcast on this particular case?
I went down interviewing about two and a half weeks ago, and a couple of weeks before that that I thought, ‘you know, this is, this is a preventable, slow moving tragedy that we need to bring all the attention to that we can.’ So that’s when I started trying to see if we could get access to interview [Reed], and I was able to get it. And so at that point it became a no brainer because I wanted to do everything that I could.
The fact that it’s so clear-cut provided an opportunity not only to tell his story but to hopefully continue to move the needle on shifting public opinion towards the abolition of the death penalty, because, and I think that’s going to be the legacy of this case. I’m hoping against hope that he gets his day in court and is free. But however it works out, I don’t think this is going to go away.
What could somebody listening to the podcast or reading this article do if they want to help in some way?
I think that just continuing to post and sign the petition, and learn about it by listening to the podcast or watching the Now This News piece [that was produced in partnership with with Wrongful Conviction.] I think that we have a realistic chance of getting more signatures on the petition for his innocence than the number of total number of people who voted for the governor. It’s growing by 100,000 [signatures] a day right now. And I think we just crossed 3 million signatures.
Other than that, I don’t know what there is to do..But if you Google ‘Rodney Reed’ it’s very easy to find action steps that you can take. There’s rallies…there are people protesting in Texas, and I think that everything counts. It seems hopeless, but it’s all part of the bigger picture because it’s not just about Rodney.
Is there anything else that you want people to know about the case or the podcast?
The thing I want people to know is that in this case, like in so many others, the fact that the wrong guy was convicted meant that the actual perpetrator remained free…So I think it’s important to remember that in these wrongful conviction cases, not only is the individual that’s wrongfully convicted and their family left in tatters, but also you have the society at large…And more victims are created, because when we allow the real perpetrator to remain free, people suffer. People get hurt and those are those are are preventable crimes that never need to happen. So it behooves all of us to try to create a fair and better system for everybody’s sake.
And I encourage people to listen to the podcast, not just Rodney’s, but as many episodes as they can. Because I hope that they will take away from it knowledge that will help them make more informed decisions when they end up on a jury. And if they do, my goal from the time I set out to create this podcast was exactly that: to help bring attention to the cause of wrongful conviction and give people an opportunity to understand how they can be better jurors, better witnesses, and have more of a clear view on how to be able to possibly help themselves or a loved one if they are in that situation.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.