Prejudice Against Rodney Reed in Stacey Stites’ Mysterious Death

Rodney Reed, presumed guilty and placed on death row by an all-white Texan court 23 years ago, has always maintained his not guilty plea; his case rallied support wide and broad, with various artists like Rihanna, Beyonce, and Meek Mill showing support, causing the indefinite postpone of his execution.


Josephine Kinlan

In the Bronx Science lobby stands Kate Reynolds, ’21, who believes that Rodney Reed deserves a fair trial. “There has been enough evidence revealed in the two decades since Stites’ murder that points to her fiancée as a potential suspect that Reed clearly deserves a retrial. Hopefully, this one will not be marred by the same injustices and racial bias that characterized his first trial,” said Reynolds.

On April 23rd of 1998, in the Bastrop County of Texas, 19-year old Stacey Stites left for work at 3 a.m., as she did every weekday. She worked at the Bastrop HEB, and had chosen to work morning shifts in order to make a little more money for a wedding dress she was saving up for. She had taken her fiance’s red pickup truck that morning, as she had done every morning. Despite taking her usual route, however, she never checked in to her 3:30 am shift that morning. 

Later that day, Stites was found murdered in the woods surrounding Bastrop County. Her body was sprawled on the ground, a ligature mark around her neck. Investigators made little progress in identifying suspects and understanding what had happened that night. Interview after interview turned up nothing substantial, and Stite’s family was struggling for closure. For years, the case stayed cold. That was until DNA testing showed the DNA of Rodney Reed, a then 19-year old African-American man, in Stacey Stites’ body; law enforcement took this evidence to assume Reed to be responsible for the murder of Stacey Stites. 

When Reed went to trial, the case against him was built upon the discovery of his DNA. Reed’s defense maintained that Reed was in a consensual relationship with Stites, explaining the found DNA. Many witnesses were able to confirm this. Despite having various witnesses to corroborate this claim, Reed was found guilty. His execution date was set for November 20th of 2019. As the years passed, Reed never quit standing by his plea of innocence, and neither did his supporters. New evidence has recently come out that suggests that the more likely culprit of Stites’s death was her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell. Fennell was a police officer in the Bastrop County Police Department; his position could have influenced the investigation, if he were the culprit.

Fennell failed two polygraphs when asked about Stite’s death. Additionally, about ten years after the Rodney Reed case blew over for the first time, Fennell was accused of kidnapping and assaulting a person in custody, for which he served ten years of prison time. Fennel’s prisonmate during that time, Arthur Snow Jr., who had been serving time for forgery, recently reported Fennell of confessing to Stites murder. According to snow, Fennell talked badly about his wife, and then continued to say “I had to kill my…fiancée.” Two other affidavits were also recently submitted, claiming that Fennell had made alarming and suspicious statements relating to Stites’s death. One of these was an incriminating statement relating to Stite’s body at her funeral, and the other was a claim that Fennell had threatened to kill Stites when applying for life insurance.

Science to Back it Up

There were also two cans found next to Stite’s body in the woods, which a DPS lab report showed to have DNA belonging to two other officers in the Bastrop County police department. This means Fennell could have had help from the other officers, and that due to the officers’ high positions, they were not considered suspects. 

At the time of the trial, the can evidence was completely unknown to Reed’s defense attorneys and the jury; in fact, many things that Reed’s defense did were questionable and did not help his case. Reed’s defense only brought up two out of the many witnesses that were available. More importantly, Reed had an alibi who placed him away from the murder until midnight, but this was also ignored by Reed’s defense. 

This case is only the second trial of capital murder in the history of Bastrop County, and because there is suspicion behind the fairness of the jury and court who prosecuted Reed. Reed was convicted by an all-white jury in a time where racism was still very common in Texas, as was stigma towards interraccial couples. It is fairly clear from the records of the trial and the evidence that was ignored that Reed did not receive a fair trial. However, whether Reed is guilty or not lies in another discussion. Just because he was in a consensual relationship with Stites does not exonerate him from her murder. 

This case also brings light to the question of capital punishment in our criminal justice system. Activists have used this case to question the validity of the death penalty as a deterrent for crime. “The risk that innocent people who were wrongly convicted could face the death penalty is far too high to warrant its use,” said Kate Reynolds ’21. “The death penalty is also an unnecessarily harsh tool that is ineffective at actually preventing crime.” 

Killing offenders as punishment for crime is a very quick and simple procedure, and is often looked at as easier than other options; rehabilitation always leaves risk that offenders will repeat offenses, and it requires lots of resources and time. Nonetheless, capital punishment is risky and flawed, and above all, it is murder. “It doesn’t deter criminals because most death penalty offenses are spontaneous crimes of passion that people commit out of anger or desperation,” said Dr. Davis, AP American Studies teacher. “It’s also a final act that is subject to the frailties of human judgment and to the inequities that go along with living. Issues like race, class, and gender demonstrably affect who is executed when, and that doesn’t seem fair.” There have been constant pushes for rehabilitation as opposed to punishment due to the recognition of these frailties by various people and groups, such as the Innocence Project, who was one of the main voices of support behind Rodney Reed. The debate on what should be used to deal with criminals is still being fought, with thirty states currently still using the death penalty.

Regardless, we can see that Rodney Reed did not receive a fair trial. There was too much evidence supporting his innocence that was ignored and denied. Whether or not he is innocent, we cannot currently be sure of, but maybe a change in how juries look upon suspects, in the complex system that we call “justice,” will change that.

“The death penalty is also an unnecessarily harsh tool that is ineffective at actually preventing crime.”