Supporters of Rodney Reed (pictured) are calling for a new trial for the Texas death-row prisoner sentenced to death in 1998 by an all-white jury in a racially charged trial. On September 10, 2019, Reed’s family and supporters protested Texas’ death penalty outside the governor’s mansion in Austin. Their plea for a new trial based on evidence of his innocence has been joined by a growing chorus of supporters, which include the Innocence Project, the victim’s cousin, Texas state representative Vikki Goodwin, and Sister Helen Prejean.

Reed, who is black, faces a November 20, 2019 execution date for the 1996 murder of a 19-year-old white woman, Stacey Stites, with whom he was having a secret affair. He has consistently maintained his innocence. Reed has argued that Stites was murdered and that he was framed by her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, an Austin-area police officer who was later fired and jailed based on allegations that he had kidnapped and raped a woman while on duty. In August, the Innocence Project filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court seeking DNA testing of evidence from the crime, including the belt that was used to strangle Stites.

Sandra Reed, Rodney’s mother, has been advocating on his behalf for years. “He never had a chance,” she told the supporters at the rally. In an interview with The Guardian, she said “[r]ace was a big factor in this case. A ‘Jim Crow trial’, an all-white jury, none of his peers.” Rodney Reed has said he and Stites had kept their affair secret because it would have caused a scandal in their small Texas town and because Stites feared Fennell’s reaction if he found out.

According to the Innocence Project court filing, witnesses said they had heard Fennell on several occasions threaten to kill Stites if she cheated on him, including saying “he would strangle her with a belt.” The lawsuit says that, in addition to the sexual abuse charges that led to his conviction, Fennell had been the subject of several complaints about “racial bias and use of excessive force at the Giddings police department where he worked.” The Innocence Project pleading says Fennell gave “inconsistent statements” about his activities on the night of the murder. According to the pleading, “prominent forensic pathologists” have concluded Fennell’s testimony that Stites was abducted and killed on her way to work is “medically and scientifically impossible.”

As Reed’s scheduled execution date approaches, he has received support from some prominent and unusual sources. Heather Campbell Stobbs, a cousin of Stacey Stites, has publicly expressed doubts about Reed’s guilt. “Too many things point to the ineptitude of law enforcement when they first started working the case,” she said.

Texas state representative Vikki Goodwin is calling for a retrial, or for Reed to be removed from death row. “I don’t think anyone can say he is guilty without a shadow of a doubt,” Goodwin said. “I don’t believe we should carry out the death penalty when there’s doubt about the truth of the case.” She pointed to other cases of innocence, saying, “I believe history has shown that in too many cases what seems to be true and just has turned out not to be so when new information or new scientific advances occur.”

Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and the recently released River of Fire, has also spoken out on Reed’s behalf. “Racial discrimination infects the death penalty system as a whole and we see it in this case,” her spokesperson, Griffin Hardy, said. “It’s disturbing to see these kind of biases and prejudices that can ultimately cost someone their life.”