A 19-year-old woman is sexually assaulted and murdered. Two men are plausible suspects. The first failed two lie-detector tests, has an abusive past and is later incarcerated for sexually assaulting another victim. The second has an alibi and evidence presented against him has been proved to be inconclusive. The question is clear, and the answer should be as well; who, between these two men, is the most obvious culprit?
Yet, the man who has spent two decades in a Texan prison and who has been sentenced to death for the murder of Stacey Stites is the second, and his name is Rodney Reed. Reed was having an affair with the victim at th
e time of the murder and was arrested a year later. The other man, Jimmy Fennell, was the fiancee of Stacey Stites. He was never convicted for the murder of Stites and was only briefly investigated. On the 15th of November, Reed was given an indefinite stay of execution, just five days before his execution date. This decision was the result of a massive media-attention that allowed the case to be revisited.
“When you look at Rodney Reed’s case, everything that is wrong with the American Criminal Justice System just pops out of this case”. These are the words of Bryce Benjet, Reed’s lawyer, when discussing the case in an episode of Wrongful Convictions. He has worked with his team for more than twenty years in the hope of exonerating Reed.
Reed’s family have protested his innocence and proposed another version of events. This version, coming from Reed himself, has grabbed popular attention thanks to the media coverage it has received. The only evidence used to sentence Reed to death was the presence of his DNA in Stites body, which was justified by many as the consequence of a consensual affair. Reed instead claims Fennell is responsible for Stites’ murder. For him, the lack of attention on Fennell is striking; he is a violent man who had threatened Stites’ before her murder. He is also a convicted sex offender. However, Fennell’s position as a police officer close to the investigation may have played a role. Reed was convicted by an all-white jury on a poor evidential basis; witnesses hadn’t been called to testify, the victim’s house wasn’t searched and there were no traces of Reed’s DNA at the crime scene.
The difference, for millions of people, is not only that Reed is a black man, but that Fennell is a white police officer. Even though miscarriages of justice exist, it is popularly believed that in the US justice system, some scenarios repeat themselves too often. Statistics show a stark difference in the arrests and convictions of white and black men, and it has been a major debate for years. The likelihood for a black man born in 2001 in the US being imprisoned is one in three, whereas for a white man it is one in seventeen. The racial bias in the system doesn’t, unfortunately, come as news. This trend is evident in the practise of the death penalty, which is still legal in 29 of the 50 US states. In Texas, where Reed was convicted, more than 70% of death sentences handed down in the past 5 years were given to black people. Yet, black people, as a minority, consist of a smaller percentage of society compared to white men in Texas, but they form almost half of the inmates with death row sentences.
Rodney Reed is lucky in some respects; he has been granted a second chance. But this opportunity is the result of the faithful determination of Reed’s family and team of lawyers. Even if Reed’s verdict is overturned or comprehensively changed, he has spent twenty-two years of his life in prison, arguably as an innocent man. The involvement of public personalities such as Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian West who have publicly advocated for his sentence to be revised, has been essential to his situation. Nonetheless, the family’s battle for his freedom is still alive and isn’t yet realised.
A justice system that is plagued by racism, knowingly or not, impacts the whole society. African-American communities continue to be marginalised. There are several disadvantages for black civilians in the criminal justice system from racial profiling prior to arrest to racial biases throughout the judicial process. These disadvantages then translate into unfair sentences, ruining people’s lives and nurturing the existence of racial stereotypes.
Imagine how many lives are destroyed due to unjustified yet deep-rooted beliefs. When the future of an individual is predetermined by their race, it creates a succession of mechanisms that can be confused as the norm. The justice system, as the higher authority, has to set the rightful norms. Failure to do so generates resentment and perpetual injustice. It is about time that the system stops finding power from acquiescence, and starts to recognise its own mistakes.