With His Execution Blocked, Rodney Reed Has a Chance to Prove Innocence

With His Execution Blocked, Rodney Reed Has a Chance to Prove Innocence

In a stunning decision handed down Friday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution of Rodney Reed, an African-American death row prisoner who was scheduled to be executed on Wednesday for a murder he says he did not commit. The appeals court ordered a review of the case to examine claims of prosecutorial misconduct. Millions of people around the country had joined Reed’s cause in recent weeks amid mounting evidence that another man may be responsible for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites, a 19-year-old white woman. In 1998, an all-white jury sentenced Reed to die for Stites’s murder after his DNA was found inside her body. The two were having an affair at the time of her death. But new and previously ignored details in the case indicate that Stites’s then-fiancé, a white police officer named Jimmy Fennell, may in fact be responsible for the killing. Fennell was later jailed on kidnapping and rape charges in another case. Last month, a man who spent time in jail with Fennell signed an affidavit saying Fennell had admitted in prison to killing his fiancée because she was having an affair with a black man. We speak with Rodrick Reed, brother of Rodney Reed; Uwana Akpan, sister-in-law of Rodney Reed; and Bryce Benjet, senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, who has represented Reed for many years. “As we’ve investigated this case, evidence continues to mount that shows that Rodney didn’t commit the crime, and implicates Fennell,” Benjet says.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. In a stunning decision handed down Friday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution of Rodney Reed, an African-American death row prisoner scheduled to be executed this Wednesday for a murder he says he did not commit. Millions of people around the country have joined the family’s cause in recent weeks amidst mounting evidence another man may be responsible for the ’96 murder of Stacey Stites, a 19-year-old white woman.

Among the celebrities who have taken up Rodney Reed’s cause is Kim Kardashian West, who happened to be in the room, who happened to be meeting with Rodney Reed, when he was informed he would not be executed — at least for now. On Friday, Kim Kardashian tweeted, quote, “Today, I had the honor of meeting #RodneyReed in person and the privilege of sitting with him when he got the news that the highest court in Texas had issued a stay of execution and remanded the case back to the trial court for further consideration. So grateful for the commitment and passion of everyone who voiced their support, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles for their recommendation to issue a 120 day reprieve, and the courts for issuing a stay!” Kim Kardashian West later sat down with the Today show and described Reed’s response to the news his execution had been stayed.

KIM KARDASHIAN WEST: It was emotional. It was extremely emotional. And he said, “Praise Jesus.”

AMY GOODMAN: In 1998, an all-white jury sentenced Rodney Reed to die for Stites’ murder after his DNA was found inside her body. But the two were having a relationship at the time of her death. Now new and previously ignored details in the case indicate Stites’ then-fiancé, a white police officer named Jimmy Fennell, may in fact be responsible for Stacey’s murder. Fennell was later jailed on kidnapping and rape charges in another case. Last month, a man who spent time in jail with Fennell signed an affidavit saying Fennell had admitted in prison to killing his fiancée because she was having an affair with a black man.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Bryce Benjet, a senior attorney at the Innocence Project. He has been representing Reed. He’s been working on the case for 18 years. We’re also joined by Rodney Reed’s brother, Rodrick Reed, and his sister-in-law, Uwana Akpan.

We welcome you all back to Democracy Now! Rodrick, I’m going to begin with you. You’re almost twins with your brother. I mean, you are that close. Talk about where you were when you heard that your brother would not be murdered or killed by the state of Texas, at least for now.

RODRICK REED: Actually, I was at the airport. We was traveling back from Washington, D.C., when I got the news. And it was just all I could do to, you know, hold back tears of joy and thank God for him getting a stay, give us a chance to just do all that we can do to prove his innocence.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Uwana, you come to this case later. You’ve been working on it for a number of years, though. Your response?

UWANA AKPAN: So, we were actually traveling with Sister Helen’s spokesperson, Griffin Hardy, and he was the one who told us about the 120 — or, the Board of Pardons and Paroles’ 120-day reprieve. And then, when we got on the plane, actually, so, there was an issue with our plane. The air traffic controllers, they weren’t ready yet or whatever, and I had my phone on airplane mode. Then I took it off of airplane mode, and then, like immediately, Bryce, he called us, and he was the one who told us that the Court of Criminal Appeals, you know, did the indefinite stay. And I was just like, “Oh my goodness!” You know? And I told Rodrick, and we were just so kind of like in shock because of like the stuff that had happened with the — previously, and just thankful to God, you know, that we didn’t have to wait over the weekend, until Monday, to get a decision, that we had it prior to the weekend starting. So, it was a blessing.

RODRICK REED: Yes, it was.

AMY GOODMAN: Rodrick, have you talked to your brother?

RODRICK REED: No, I have not talked to him. I’m scheduled to see him next week. Yes, I haven’t talked to him yet.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Bryce Benjet, you’ve worked on this case for 18 years. Can you explain what exactly this decision means?

BRYCE BENJET: Sure. This is a decision that we’ve been trying to get for, you now, not — decades, really. This is an opportunity for us, obviously, to avoid the execution, but, more importantly, to present all of the evidence in this case that shows that Rodney Reed didn’t commit the crime. So, everything that we were asking for from the court was granted in this order. So we’re very pleased with the order, and we’re getting ready now to go to court and present all of this evidence, which both exonerates Rodney Reed and implicates somebody else in the murder.

AMY GOODMAN: So, of course, we’re not, then, just talking about Rodney Reed not being executed, because if ultimately he is not executed, it’s going to be because of evidence of innocence, which would mean he would be freed. Talk about what you asked for.

BRYCE BENJET: Sure. So, we really presented three different kinds of evidence. There’s, first, scientific evidence that shows that Rodney’s guilt is physically impossible, that this crime took place at a time that Jimmy Fennell testified he was alone with Stacey.

AMY GOODMAN: Jimmy Finnell being the fiancé, white police officer, who was going to marry Stacey Stites, apparently.

BRYCE BENJET: Yeah, and, in fact, was also a prime suspect in the murder, until Rodney Reed was associated with Stacey Stites. So, this type of evidence, scientific evidence that shows that Rodney’s guilt is impossible. There’s a second category of evidence, which is evidence that shows that Rodney and Stacey had a relationship. These are co-workers of Stacey and even her cousin. And then there’s a third category.

AMY GOODMAN: Who all said she told her —

BRYCE BENJET: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: She told them about her relationship with Rodney.

BRYCE BENJET: Yes, she told about the relationship to co-workers. And she also was seen with Rodney by her own cousin. And then, third, there’s a relationship — excuse me, there’s evidence of Fennell’s guilt, being his statements confessing to the crime, statements —

AMY GOODMAN: Where did that statement go? He was in prison for rape and kidnapping after the murder of Stacey Stites, but they never went back. They never even tested the murder weapon, a belt, for DNA, though they have it. Where did that statement go? Did you know about it?

BRYCE BENJET: So, that was a statement that was made while Fennell was in prison for another crime, and made to a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood in the prison that he was in. And so, it’s a somewhat extraordinary statement that we’re continuing to investigate. And then, so, as we’ve investigated this case, evidence continues to mount that shows that Rodney didn’t commit the crime, and implicates Fennell. And this is in an open investigation. We continue to investigate leads, and we look forward to presenting all of this evidence in court.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Stacey had clearly said she was afraid of Jimmy Fennell, right? Her —

BRYCE BENJET: Those are statements that are attributed to her from a variety of witnesses that we’ve talked to, and that there was an air of intimidation throughout this trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the belt.

BRYCE BENJET: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened. How was Stacey murdered?

BRYCE BENJET: Yeah, so, Stacey Stites was murdered with a belt. At the time, the technology for DNA testing was not available to test skin cells or things like that which were handled by the murderer. Today we can. And so, one of the things —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain where her body was found, very quickly.

BRYCE BENJET: Oh, and her body was found off the side of a road in rural Bastrop County. And one of the most important things about her body was that it indicates that she had been killed for hours prior to being left at that scene, which, again, places the time of death at a time that Jimmy Fennell testified the two were alone in her apartment.

AMY GOODMAN: And that he would have possibly took that body.

BRYCE BENJET: Yes. And that body then was transported in the truck. We see decompositional fluid in the truck. So we know she was dead for hours before she left that truck. And again, that places her death at a time hours earlier than what was presented at the trial. And that implicates Jimmy Fennell and not Rodney Reed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how do you get this belt tested?

BRYCE BENJET: Well, we’ve actually presented this request to numerous courts. We are in the federal court system asking for that DNA testing. We’re continuing to pursue that. And we certainly encourage the state, the district attorney, the AG, to really look at this case, because I think when you really look at these facts, the only conclusion you can reach is that Rodney Reed didn’t commit the crime, and somebody else did.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Rodney Reed in his own words. Here he’s speaking in an interview with the popular daytime TV host Dr. Phil, who visited him in prison on death row. This aired in September.

RODNEY REED: I am absolutely innocent in this case. I absolutely had nothing to do with Stacey’s death. I want to be a father to my kids. I want to be a grandfather to my grandchildren. I want to be able to be the son to look after my mother, and the brother to my brothers. I want to be a part of my family and my friends’ life.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Rodney Reed. Rodrick, we’re going to end with you. We just have about 30 seconds. What are you calling for right now? What exactly does this mean to you, the stopping of the execution for at least 120 days, and where this case goes from here? What are you going to say to your brother when you see him next week?

RODRICK REED: I’m going to tell him that we’re not going to stop applying the pressure to get him a new trial, to exonerate his name, and that God has been working through all of us to get justice not just for him, but for Stacey Stites, as well. And that’s what we’re committed to, and we’re not going to stop until it’s done.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all —

RODRICK REED: And —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Rodrick.

RODRICK REED: And just, you know, we love him, and we can’t wait ’til our family is whole again.

AMY GOODMAN: Rodrick Reed, brother of Rodney Reed; Uwana Akpan, sister-in-law of Rodney; and Bryce Benjet, senior attorney with the Innocence Project. He’s been working on the case for 18 years.