Photo: Protesters rally against Rodney Reed’s execution in Bastrop, Texas
By Dmitri Sans
For the second time, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has ordered a stay for the scheduled execution of Rodney Reed, convicted in the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites.
Sentenced to death in 1998, Reed was previously set to be killed by the state on March 5, 2015, but the court had also ordered a stay shortly before the date, following a decades-long campaign to exonerate him led by his family and nonprofit Innocence Project.
Multiple documentaries and television specials have also helped to expose how Reed, a Black man, had been the target of a racist prosecution in Bastrop, Texas. This sympathetic media coverage, as well as Reed’s defense attorneys, have asserted that Stites’ then-fiance, former police officer Jimmy Fennel, was likely the true murderer of the 19-year-old woman.
Before this most recent postponement, Reed’s case had caught the attention of high-profile figures like celebrity Kim Kardashian, who have all pleaded with Texas Governor Greg Abbott to spare Reed’s life.
The telling of Reed’s story since his conviction, crafted mainly by Innocence Project, caters to liberal and opportunist audiences. The goal of the nonprofit is to exonerate wrongfully incarcerated people through the use of new DNA evidence. In Reed’s case, the evidence presented since his trial has been so compelling that even racists like Texas Senator Ted Cruz have found it palatable to support his cause.
By zeroing in on Reed, the man, his defense team has, willingly or not, obscured the conditions that led to his conviction in the first place, namely the oppression of the Black Nation by US imperialism. His identity as a Black man has been used to show the racist motivations behind his persecution, but his case is portrayed as a mistake made by the US criminal justice system rather than an objective being met.
The modern death penalty by lethal injection, like lynching before it, is a weapon of national oppression. In order to maintain the super-exploitation of Black workers, the subjugation of Black markets, and the suppression of Black resistance, the state employs many forms of terror: police killings (like last month’s police murder of Atatiana Jefferson), drug raids, and evictions, to name only a few.
Reed’s case, thanks to the work of Innocence Project and others, has elicited the pity of liberal onlookers, but no media campaign is necessary to win over the Black nation, who can relate to Reed’s plight. Reed has been on death row for over 20 years, but the Black nation as a whole has been oppressed since its inception.
The call for Reed’s freedom must be expanded to a call for national liberation for the Black Belt and the overthrow of US imperialism. Reed is more than an innocent man. He has come to represent an entire nation longing to be free.
The Story of Rodney Reed
Rodney Reed’s first encounter with the law was as a high schooler in Wichita Falls, Texas, where he played for the Hirschi High football team and competed in boxing at the state level. He was arrested in the fall of 1987 in connection with a sexual assault case that had taken place a week earlier. He was 19 years old.
The prosecution made the case that Reed had broken into the house of a 19 year old woman and had proceeded to beat and rape her. Reed’s defense said that he had met the woman at a party and that the sex had been consensual. Reed admitted to hitting her once in response to her slapping him in the face and insulting him.
A Wichita County jury acquitted Reed on August 16, 1991, but the case, in addition to other later charges of sexual assault, would be used by the prosecution years later in the 1998 trial that would put him behind bars and eventually on death row.
Stacey Stites, a young white woman who worked at the Bastrop H-E-B grocery store and took care of her disabled mother in Giddings, was found dead on April 23, 1996 in a Bastrop county ditch. A police examination of the horrific scene concluded that she had been raped and strangled, the murder weapon being her own belt. The first suspect was her then-fiancé Jimmy Fennell, a local police officer at the time. His DNA did not match the semen found in Stites’s body, however, but Reed’s did, which the police had on file from a separate case.
Although he initially denied knowing Stites, Reed eventually disclosed that he had been having an affair with her and that they had consensually had sex the day before she was murdered. The prosecution, similar to the racist imaginings of Reed’s first case, instead proposed that he had ambushed her on the side of the road before killing her.
Reed was convicted May 18, 1998 and sentenced to death shortly after. The DNA evidence had been the lynchpin of the state’s case against Reed, but it was buttressed by a police cover-up and the history of national oppression in the US South.
As years have gone by since the original trial, more and more troubling evidence has come out about Fennell, the police officer fiancé, and his coordinated efforts with other cops to elude investigation. Police never searched his apartment where he and Stites were living together, and the murder weapon (her belt) was never tested for DNA evidence. Multiple witnesses have now claimed that Fennell had found out about Stites’ relationship with Reed, and that this was the motive behind her murder.
Even more damning are the multiple allegations of sexual assault against Fennell after 1997, including one that led to a conviction in 2008. While on duty, Fennell had responded to a domestic disturbance call and proceeded to kidnap the woman involved and rape her. He served 10 years for the crime and was recently released.
When analyzing the case on an individual basis, both Reed and Fennell were accused of sexual assault multiple times. Viewed historically, however, Reed has had to contend with the racist fear of Black men raping white women, a mythos that has served US imperialism in its oppression of the Black nation, whereas Fennell has benefited from his position as a police officer of the US South, a profession that originated for the purpose of enforcing slavery.
From Lynching to Lethal Injection
The beginnings of both the white supremacist idea of Black men preying on white women as well as the practice of lynching in general parallel the origins of the Abolitionist movement in the United States before the Civil War. Since then, steps taken towards the emancipation of the Black nation have always been met with reactionary violence in the service of national oppression, and the evolution of bourgeois capital punishment is one of the most disturbing examples of this trend.
In Waco, Texas, only a couple hours from where Reed would be arrested decades later, a young Black man named Jesse Washington would be convicted of raping and killing a white woman in 1916. In some of the first publicized photographs of a lynching, the gruesome ordeal of Washington’s torture and hanging were captured, later to be known as the “Waco Horror.”
These pictures were obtained by Elisabeth Freeman, a suffragette who had been organizing in Texas and had been assigned by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to investigate the lynching. The accounts of the incident she discovered were sickening.
Washington had been dragged by a chain around his neck out of the Waco courthouse, beaten, stabbed, castrated, and then hung and lowered over a fire for two hours. An estimated crowd of 10,000 white Texans had cheered on the lynching, and postcards were made shortly after commemorating it. One later recovered by historians read, “This is the barbecue we had last night.”
After delivering her report to W.E.B. Dubois, Freeman went on a speaking tour to agitate around the killing and raise money to prosecute those involved in Washington’s lynching. According to a July 1916 article of one of her lectures, she describes how the teenager was the son of a tenant farmer on a plantation. She reports that he had been repeatedly harassed by the landowners and other whites in town before the lynching.
“When [Washington] was rushed into the street, he gave one cry, ‘Haven’t I one friend in all this crowd?’ It was like a voice from the grave,” Freeman recounts. “The boy was well built and strong. He fought to the end.”
The details of Freeman’s investigation reveal how the accusation of rape in Washington’s case justified the reinforcement of the existing political, economic, and social bondage of the Black nation at that time. As outlined in the 1932 pamphlet Lynching: A Weapon of National Oppression by Harry Haywood and Milton Howard, the majority of lynching victims were not charged with sexual assault (including the dozens of women who were lynched, documented by Ida B. Wells), and many cases originated from accounting disputes.
In 1921, a Black sharecropper named Henry Lowry from Nodena, Arkansas, had gone to his landowner’s house to protest theft of wages. He had been paid less and less over the span of a couple years, and his family was starving.
In response, the landowner had fired a revolver at Lowry, injuring him, and Lowry fought back, eventually killing his oppressor. Soon after, Lowry was lynched by a mob and burned.
“The only way that the capitalist class can preserve this extra exploitation of the [Black] masses is to keep them an isolated, degraded group, subject to special persecution,” the pamphlet reads. “Lynchings defend profits!”
Following the end of lynching as an accepted form of punishment, the death penalty by other means like lethal injection continued to play a role in enforcing national oppression. Between 1930 and 1972, 89.1% of prisoners put to death for rape convictions were Black. This startling statistic is the reflection of a predominant tendency of US prosecutors and juries to not ask for a defendant’s death in rape convictions, except when it comes to Black defendants.
It is this legal discrimination and history of national oppression that Rodney Reed and Black people continue to face today.
Combat and Resist National Oppression
While mobs were often the instigators of lynchings in the past, these acts were often condoned by the state. This participation in the killings ranged from negligence in enforcing anti-lynching laws, prosecuting rapes of Black women by white men, and protecting Black targets from lynching, all the way to the state committing the killings itself through hangings, electrocution, etc.
Confronted by this joint threat, communists and revolutionaries organized white and black workers together against their common enemy, the US state, and the racist goons that served its interests.
After the Third Period was announced by the Communist International in 1928, the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) led the organizing of Black sharecroppers in the South and workers across the country in fighting back against bosses, landowners, and white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. In one example from Bridgepoint, Ohio in 1932, white and black miners defended organizer Alex Dorsey from a lynch mob put together by a local union leader affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.
It was this militant resistance, with the demand that the Black Belt have the right to self-determination, that sounded the death knell for the practice of lynching, not the ineffectual reforms that only passed (many after the fact) out of fear that the revolutionary violence waged on behalf of national liberation would escalate.
In more recent history, the Black Lives Matter movement drew attention to the state as executioner through extrajudicial police murders of Black people. The concept of mass incarceration as the new version of Jim Crow laws became popular around this time, and the plight of Rodney Reed and others gained more traction in mainstream media.
While the uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities rebelled against the terror of national oppression, the leadership of the movement was largely pacified and channeled into reformism and electoral politics, and the conception of the Black nation as a nation was dropped in favor of assimilation into US imperialism.
The battle for Rodney Reed’s release has also remained largely within legally acceptable bounds, mainly due to the influence of the Innocence Project, but there have been some exceptions. The weekend before his execution was stayed, a piece of graffiti appeared on the Fox 7 news station in Austin in support of Reed’s fight for freedom.
In a social media statement, Reed’s defense attorneys attempted to shut down this form of resistance. “He does not condone vandalism,” the statement said. “Instead of a spray can, he urges those interested to pick up the telephone to call your legislators and leaders.”
This liberalism promoted by those closest to Reed has attracted opportunists and revisionists alike. At the Saturday rally at the Governor’s Mansion in Austin before the execution was stayed, local politicians like Mayor Steve Adler (who recently helped approve the massive gentrifying “Domain on Riverside” project) as well as members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation made appearances, capitalizing on the anger and grief of the hundreds present for their own electoral ambitions in service of US imperialism.
These parasites will applaud the calls of Reed’s attorneys to correct what is viewed as an anomaly in the criminal justice system, and some may even advocate for abolishing the death penalty. Everything is entertained as an option as long as it does not go beyond reforms.
This passive strategy was also pushed during the lynching epidemic, where the NAACP asserted that the best way to fight lynching was to collect signatures in support of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. This legislation was never passed, and it was not until last year that the US Senate passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, but this also died after not being approved by the House of Representatives.
“By dangling the illusion that lynching can be stopped by such laws-even a federal one- the NAACP tries to divert the Negro workers from an energetic struggle against lynching,” Haywood and Howard write. “It asks them to rest their faith in those very state officials and in the very ruling class which organizes, perpetuates and defends lynch law.”
These same false promises are still sold today, asking those who anxiously watch the ups and downs of Reed’s trial to trust his fate to the same US imperialism that oppresses the Black nation and the world as the sole hegemonic superpower.
These lies must be rejected. The goal of Reed’s attorneys is to win this one court case, but there is much more at stake. The Black nation and many of the US masses see their own oppression reflected in the injustice of Reed’s predicament. This shared oppression is rooted in the the contradictions of US imperialism, something that cannot be reformed away or mitigated by bourgeois laws. It must be overthrown.