AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott, A man’s life now lies in your hands. Spare him.
On Nov. 20, Rodney Reed is to be executed by the state of Texas for a crime we can no longer be confident he committed. Twenty one years ago, he was convicted in the 1996 rape and murder of 19-year old Giddings resident Stacey Stites. Ever since, evidence has mounted that Reed neither raped nor killed her. Now, his defense claims it has new witnesses pointing to the man who did.
Reed, 51, is scheduled to die. Of this, there is no doubt. Nor of this: Stites was strangled and killed on April 23, 1996, her body found on a country road in neighboring Bastrop County. Reed became a suspect a year later when another woman accused him of sexual assault; the prosecution showed semen found on both women belonged to Reed.
Reed maintained that was because he and Stites, engaged to Giddings police officer Jimmy Fennell, Jr., had been having an affair, but the jury convicted him anyway.
Over time, facts have emerged that were never part of Reed’s trial and as a result, the prosecution’s case has fallen apart.
The medical examiner who claimed that Reed raped Stites has recanted. DNA evidence that pointed to Stites’ fiance was never shared with Reed’s defense. Other physical evidence, including the murder weapon — her belt — was never subjected to genetic testing. Now, Reed’s defense at the Innocence Project claims it has new evidence, including two signed affadavits from individuals who knew Fennell. One says he threatened to kill Stites if he ever caught her with another man, and another says he heard Fennell tell her corpse at the viewing that she had deserved to die.
On Oct. 4, lawyers for the Innocence Project filed a motion in state court to have the execution date withdrawn, citing the new evidence that they say was not available at trial.
All along, the state courts have denied Reed’s one repeated request: that evidence collected where Stites’ body was found be genetically tested. Just two years ago, Fennell’s old boss, Giddings’ former chief of police, told CNN that Fennell had confessed to being out later than he’d said at trial and that he’d been drinking the night before his fiance’s body was discovered, too.
The Criminal Court of Appeals has twice rejected Reed’s appeal, saying the untested evidence probably would not have acquitted Reed nor would the testimony of Fennell’s old boss have been enough to convict Fennell, who has never been charged in connection to Stites’ death. Fennell just finished 10 years in prison for raping a woman in his custody.
Of course, Fennell’s guilt is not the urgent question right now. It’s Reed’s life that hangs in the balance.
His guilt is not remotely beyond a reasonable doubt. A man should not die as long as a believable question of innocence hangs over him.
Which brings us to you, governor.
The case of Rodney Reed is not a case against the death penalty, which still has the support of many in this law-and-order state. It is a case against a potentially wrongful execution.
Your predecessor, Rick Perry, stood by during the frequent executions of his tenure. On Perry’s watch, 279 inmates were put to death — nearly half of the state’s total since Texas resumed executions in 1982. While on your watch, Governor Abbott, 46 people have been executed, you have also already done something Perry rarely did: You’ve exercised discretion to stop an execution.
Minutes before Thomas Whitaker was set to die, at 6 p.m. on Feb. 22, 2018, you granted him clemency. He will spend life in prison for the murder of his mother and brother in Fort Bend County over an inheritance. There was no question of Whitaker’s guilt, just whether it was fair to put him to death when the triggerman got a lighter sentence.
How much more compelling, then, is Reed’s case: Whitaker, who is white, was unquestionably guilty; Reed, who is black, may well be innocent. Study after study, including work by University of Michigan researchers, has found that black and Latino convicts are far more likely to wind up on death row, wrongfully, than white convicts.
Now the case rests beforethe Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and it may soon send you a recommendation in Reed’s case. But you can signal your own preference now. You aren’t bound by arcane rules of the appellate courts. Both you and the board have the documented flaws in the case. You have the Bastrop County prosecutor steadfastly refusing DNA testing on an old murder. You have the fact that Reed has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court. And even if the board doesn’t recommend you commute his sentence, you have the authority to spare his life for 30 days as he pursues his remedy at the Supreme Court.
You should use that authority and give the courts time to fully evaluate the new evidence.
As you mull your options, remember our history: Texas has a tarnished record of convicting and executing the wrong people. In 1863, San Patricio County hanged Chipita Rodriquez for a murder she did not commit, as made clear 120 years later when the state legislature absolved her. In 2000, Claude Jones was put to death because a single strand of his hair was found at a liquor store that had been the scene of a robbery-turned-murder. A decade later, researchers tested that hair and found it very likely came from someone else.
There are many recent cases of wrongful convictions leading to death row in Texas. Since 1987, 13 death row prisoners in Texas have been exonerated. Most were not white, according to data kept by the Innocence Project. False accusations and official misconduct have been at the root of most exonerations in the United States. Right now, though, Rodney Reed is scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. on Nov. 20 in Huntsville.
There is so much wrong with his case there is hardly anything right with it. Do not execute this man, governor. Spare Rodney Reed’s life.
Richard Parker, author of “Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America,” is a contributing columnist for the Houston Chronicle.