Wednesday, Nov. 20, was the date set by the State of Texas for the legalized lynching of Rodney Reed.
Approximately 3 million United States citizens, many high-profile public figures among them, have signed petitions demanding a new trial for the 51-year-old death row inmate. The list includes Oprah Winfrey, Helen Prejean, Kim Kardashian, Beto O’Rourke and even U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. (And our names, too.)
Reed has been sitting on death row since 1998, when an all-white jury convicted and condemned him to death for the 1996 rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites. Reed is black. Stites was white. Texas is Texas.
Innocence Project attorneys, flanked by millions of supporters, have asked Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott to rescind the death warrant and grant a new trial. They cite corrupted and ignored evidence in the 1998 trial, seven potentially exonerating witnesses who have since come forward and a slew of incriminating evidence that points to Stites’ fiancé, white police officer Jimmy Fennell Jr., as the likely murderer.
On Nov. 15 the Texas parole board joined the nationwide outcry, voting unanimously to recommend that Abbott halt Reed’s imminent execution and grant a 120-day reprieve. At a late hour, indeed, just five days short of an irrevocable miscarriage of justice, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered an indefinite stay of execution pending further review of the challenges to Reed’s underlying convictions for rape and murder.
As people who are morally opposed to capital punishment, we celebrate the court’s decision. At the same time, Reed’s case, including the stay of execution, highlights the need to abolish capital punishment.
“We join others who believe in justice, who oppose capital punishment on moral grounds and who denounce the blood lust that capital punishment cannot conceal.”
First, note that Gov. Abbott did not grant a reprieve. In the face of mounting proof that Reed’s convictions for rape and murder were wrongly obtained, Abbott’s response appears similar to Pontius Pilate who, according to Gospel accounts, allowed Jesus to be crucified (lynched) despite Pilate’s belief that Jesus was not guilty of insurrection against the Roman Empire.
You can read the ghastly details of the crime and miscarriage of justice elsewhere. Here we speak to some core obscenities of capital punishment as exercised in the United States, where white supremacy shows no signs of disappearing any time soon.
Nationally, crimes against white victims yield harsher punishment than crimes against people of color. Blacks accused of committing crimes against whites encounter the highest rates of conviction and receive the harshest penalties. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, between 1930 and 1972, before the United States Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for rape (Coker v. Georgia, 1977), 89.1 percent of the men executed for rape were black; 97.4 percent of these executions occurred in former Confederate states.
Not one white man in the history of the United States has been executed for the rape of a black woman or child.
These statistics, of course, capture only judicial executions. In the history of extra-judicial “execution,” that is, lynching, the ruse of interracial rape looms large and has almost never been “proven” (as if proof can be ascertained under the duress of the mob). In some cases, such as that of Reed and Stites, a black man and white woman engaged in a consensual sexual relationship. More often, the mob has pursued black men (and women) who challenged white supremacist hegemony economically, politically, educationally or otherwise. The rape ruse pops up after the fact, a hollow pretext for bald-faced racist terrorism disguised as “protection” for supposedly vulnerable white women.
In Reed’s case, state prosecutors were hell-bent on pushing a flimsy scenario that the all-white jury lapped up. Prosecutors depicted Reed as a violent black male predator who raped and murdered Stites, who prosecutors presented as a victimized white woman. People familiar with D.W. Griffith’s racist yet landmark motion picture, Birth of a Nation, should easily recognize that hackneyed and deadly trope.
“We speak to some core obscenities of capital punishment as exercised in the United States, where white supremacy shows no signs of disappearing any time soon.”
However, the abundantly corroborated evidence points to different conclusions that expose white supremacy and white male hegemony at the core of this nation’s capital punishment scheme. Texas prosecutors and the all-white jury rejected evidence showing that Reed and Stites had an ongoing, consensual sexual relationship. Prosecutors charged Reed with raping and killing Stites rather than confront evidence that Fennell threatened to kill Stites – and eventually carried out that threat – because Stites committed the transgression of engaging in consensual sex with Reed, a black man. As Fennell is alleged to have said as he stood at Stacey’s coffin at the funeral, “You got what you deserved.”
Texas prosecutors and politicians seem as addicted to white supremacy and Afrophobia now as President Woodrow Wilson was a century ago in his enthusiasm for Birth of a Nation. Wilson held viewing sessions for Griffith’s film at the White House. A century later, Gov. Abbott channeled Wilson’s racism as far as he could extend it with his apparent resolve to carry out a state-sanctioned killing of Reed. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Reed deserves a new trial, before a jury of his peers, where all relevant evidence (including evidence that implicates Fennell) can be presented. Beyond that, Reed’s situation demonstrates how the criminal punishment system and its capital punishment operation is biased against persons of color and persons who are not wealthy. That bias subjects persons of color and persons who are not wealthy to the risk of being falsely charged, tried, convicted and sentenced more harshly than persons who are white and those who are wealthy. It also allows persons like Fennell to scapegoat persons like Reed and avoid suspicion, let alone arrest, prosecution and conviction, for killing people.
We who believe in justice must continue to lift our voices and maintain pressure on the State of Texas during this period of “reprieve.” We must not allow the State of Texas to compound the tragedy surrounding the murder of Stacey Stites by carrying out a state-sanctioned lynching of Reed. The fight to save Reed’s life, and even prove his innocence, is still on.
Meanwhile, there are many other death row inmates who face the prospect of being put to death because of miscarriages of justice. Between 1973 and 2015, 148 innocent death row prisoners were exonerated and released!
“Not one white man in the history of the United States has been executed for the rape of a black woman or child.”
We join others who believe in justice, who oppose capital punishment on moral grounds and who denounce the blood lust that capital punishment cannot conceal. For if it is morally wrong (meaning unjust) for government agents to rape persons convicted of rape, burn the homes of persons convicted of arson, plunder and loot the dwellings of robbers and molest the children of persons convicted of child abuse and molestation, it must certainly be wrong for government agents to kill persons convicted of murder.
Reed’s case, like many others that have preceded it, shows that we must abolish the state-sanctioned lynching known as capital punishment. We who believe in justice and truth must make that happen.