How I came to believe in Rodney's innocence
Tales from death row: Justice for Rodney Reed
This is being written with a heavy heart, after just receiving word that Magistrate Judge Austin has recommended against Rodney 's habeas case for relief. Rodney's case is now in the hands of District Judge Yeakel, who can either agree or disagree with the magistrate's recommendation. Rodney's defense team is now diligently reviewing Judge Austin's 82 page opinion and preparing objections, identifying errors and oversights, and arguments to present before Judge Yeakel.
After riding my bike past Rodney's home and noticing the banner hanging from the front porch, which reads “Innocent Man on Death Row Free Rodney Reed”, I had no idea at the time how my life journey would change course. At that moment, I just knew that I wanted to know more about this man and his story.
Wanting to be as forthright as I possibly can, I must divulge that I am opposed to the death penalty and have been for as long as I have held political opinions. My political leanings are decidedly progressive. In other words, I'm for all things that benefit human beings, the planet, and all sentient beings who live here—education, health care, civil and human rights, environmental preservation. Some people might call me "a bleeding heart liberal"; I understand that in today's political environment that is quite a "dis”, but I find it very complimentary. I have always had a passion for sticking up for underdogs. I also do not believe that the criminal justice system in America works the same for people of color, people who are poor, people who inhabit the margins of our society, as it works for people who are white, middle or upper class, and part of the mainstream. This last belief has only been reinforced again and again with all the study and research I have done in the last 16 months since the day I learned Rodney Reed's name. I knew when I began this journey that I was very willing to believe Rodney is innocent.
So since I’ve aired my “bias”, you should also know that I kept it very much in my awareness as I began studying Rodney's case. My initial inquiry was to do an Internet search. I then made an effort to meet Rodney's family and through them to make a connection with Rodney. I read as many media reports as I was able to find about the case. I spoke with Rodney's mother, Sandra; father, Walter; brothers; and Rodney about the case. I watched the documentary State vs Reed several times. I listened to recorded radio programs about the case. I spoke to David Fisher, an independent investigator who spent many years working as a private citizen, to shed light on the case. I read police reports, evidence documents, court documents from the original trial, appeal and habeas corpus court files. I viewed "crime" ( I use this term only because it's in the official record as such, there was no evidence where Ms. Stites's body was found to indicate that the crime actually occurred there) scene photos. I have spoken with Rodney's lead attorney, Bryce Benjet, about the case. In essence, I want it to be clear that I've done my homework.
I looked at each element of Rodney's case systematically. The "crime" scene investigation, the police investigation, the arrest phase, the pretrial phase, the guilt and innocence phase of the trial, the punishment phase of the trial, the initial appeal, and the subsequent habeas corpus writs.
Here are the issues that are the basis of my belief in Rodney's innocence:
Crime scene investigation :
- A law enforcement official placed a blanket over the victim's body prior to the arrival of the evidence collection team.
- The evidence collection team undressed the body out in the field and performed evidence collection at the scene. (along with questionable forensics, callously, disrespectful of the victim)
- In one photo, the person, procuring an evidence specimen, was not wearing gloves.
- The victim's body was released to a private funeral home, thus creating a breach in evidence custody, the body was only delivered to the morgue 2 hours later, at best, a 45 - 50 minute drive from the scene.
- Photos of the victim taken in the morgue exhibit injuries (burns and bruises) that are not present in the crime scene photos.
- No specific scientific test was done to allow credible determination of the most accurate approximation of the time of death.
The police investigation:
- The last known location, if we are to believe Mr. Fennell's version of events, that Ms. Stites was known to be alive was the apartment she shared with Mr. Fennell. This apartment was never examined to look for clues, possible evidence, leads as to who may have been responsible for Ms. Stites' death.
- The red truck, Ms. Stites was driving, was only cursorily examined for evidence. No evidence was ever found to indicate that Rodney had ever been in the vehicle. There were secretions on the passenger side floor of the truck that were noted but never tested. This information could have been extremely exculpatory on a number of levels - time of death, also it could have indicated that the truck was the actual scene of the crime, and the DNA identified could have implicated Ms. Stites' killer.
- The truck was only held in evidence for six days before being returned to Mr. Fennell, who sold the truck the next day.
- The questionably ruled suicide death of lead detective, Ed Samela, four months after the crime.
- Mr. Fennell's failed polygraph results on two separate occasions with two different examiners, showing deception in his "no" response when asked if he strangled Ms. Stites.
I reviewed each aspect of the case and found inconsistencies, incongruities, speculation presented as fact. To identify all of these individually is beyond the scope of this blog—the documentary State vs Reed and this article written by Jordan Smith do excellent jobs of identifying the numerous flaws in the case against Rodney. I will mention several other troubling issues that for me blatantly point to how poorly justice was served in this case.
DNA on two beer cans found close to Ms. Stites' body, at the time of trial indicated that the DNA was Ms. Stites and two police officers: Ed Samela and David Hall, who was a close friend and neighbor of Mr. Fennell. This evidence was never given to the defense and was not presented at trial. This was critical as it would have completely dismantled the prosecution and police's explanation for why Mr. Fennell could not have "logistically" committed the murder—with an accomplice/s it was very logistically possible.
The Medical Examiner, Dr. Bayardo, subsequently retired under pressure, after the state of the medical examiner's office's reliability and his competence were called into question. Two newspaper articles (from the Bastrop Advertiser on 4/27/96 and the Austin American Statesman on 5/7/98) contained quotes from Dr. Bayardo that directly conflict with the testimony he gave at trial and contradict "expert" testimony given by prosecution witness, Karen Blakely, at trial. .
The defense never challenged the state's forensic evidence and they never called their own experts. The defense did not call Rodney's alibi witnesses. The defense only called two of the many witnesses who knew of Rodney's consensual relationship with Ms. Stites. The defense presented no alternative theory of the crime, after having in opening statements promised to "prove" that Mr. Fennell killed Ms. Stites. The defense presented no defense.
Judge Townslee, the trial judge summarily denied defense motions pretrial and during trial. The presiding judge at Rodney's initial appeal was Reva Townsley-Corbett, the original trial judge's daughter. At one point during the appeal's process, Rodney was represented by an attorney, who was concomitantly representing a man who had allegedly confessed to Ms. Stites murder and had been a suspect at one time.
Rodney was tried by an all-white jury in the same town that the crime was committed, after months of media coverage.
A female Dallas police officer came forward upon hearing the details of how Ms. Stites was murdered to report and submit an affidavit documenting a statement Mr. Fennell made to her. While at a police academy class he said, “If I ever found out my girlfriend was cheating I would strangle her with a belt.” The prosecution claims it never received this information. This exculpatory evidence was not presented at trial.
The state had sperm DNA which by itself is only evidence of sexual intercourse, not evidence of rape without other substantiating evidence and certainly not of murder in the absence of any other evidence. The state had no motive, no witnesses, no other physical evidence—just a theory of the crime that was presented as fact.
Mr. Fennell is currently in prison serving a 10 year sentence for aggravated kidnapping and sexual assault of a woman in his custody while on duty as police officer.
This is how I "factually" came to believe in Rodney's innocence. In the last 16 months I have come to believe on a personal, emotional, and spiritual level in Rodney's innocence as well. This belief is what writes this blog, and fuels all my actions to help Rodney in any way I can.
Caitlin Adams is a resident of Bastrop, Texas. After meeting the family of Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed outside of their home in early 2011, she began writing with Rodney. She has developed a friendship with Rodney's mother Sandra and his family in Bastrop, as well as making regular trips to death row to visit Rodney.
After learning about the facts of Rodney's case, Caitlin has become an advocate for Rodney Reed – here we present Caitlin's story about her journey for justice.