‘Wrongful Conviction’ Podcast Visits Rodney Reed on Death Row as He Awaits a Stay of Execution

November 13, 2019, 1:00 PM UTC
Jason Flom RodneyReed
(L-R) Jason Flom with Rodney Reed, the subject of the "Wrongful Conviction" podcast's Nov. 13 premiere. Reed's supporters, which include celebrities and politicians, are calling on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to grant him a 30-day stay of execution.
via The Press House

Texas inmate Rodney Reed is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Nov. 20, unless Gov. Greg Abbott bows to public pressure and issues a 30-day stay so evidence of Reed’s innocence can be reexamined by the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The case has received national attention, with everyone from Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian West to Dr. Phil and Sen. Ted Cruz, in addition to other politicians on both sides of the aisle, members of law enforcement, and millions of petition signers, speaking out on behalf of Reed, who was convicted of the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites in the small Texas town Bastrop. 

The case is the subject of Wednesday’s ninth season premiere of the podcast Wrongful Conviction, in which host Jason Flom interviews Reed, his brother, his attorney, and famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden. It’s an odd position to be in, putting out this podcast a week before the scheduled execution, but Flom sees making more people aware of Reed’s situation and the larger issues surrounding the death penalty as crucial, no matter the outcome.

The episode tackles the racial aspects of the case—Reed, a black man, was having an affair with Stites, who was white. But it also covers much of the exculpatory evidence put forth by the Innocence Project and Reed’s supporters, including the fact that the belt used to strangle her has never been tested for DNA, and how Stites’s time of death doesn’t fit the chronology provided by her fiancé Jimmy Fennell, a former police officer with a violent history who pleaded guilty in 2008 to kidnapping and raping a woman in his patrol car. Three forensic experts testified that the time of death used in the original trial was “medically and scientifically” impossible, a claim sufficient enough to get a Texas court to issue a stay for Reed when he was initially scheduled for execution in 2015. 

“It just strikes me as strange. This governor, regardless of his beliefs on the death penalty, has to be hearing about it from everybody. When do you get this diverse of a coalition going, ‘Governor, do the right thing here’?” Flom says. “It’s a 30-day stay. It’s not even a heavy lift, where someone’s saying, ‘You’ve got to declare him innocent.’ What’s the hesitation?”

Flom, who spent an hour with Reed, says it’s unclear how well Reed grasps the public outcry, especially considering that social media and most of the celebrities who are so vocal about the case weren’t around when he was convicted. On top of that, his ability to communicate with outsiders is very limited—though Reed can have visitors and speak with his lawyers, death row inmates in Texas are only allowed one five-minute call every three months. 

“He’s dealing with it as best he can,” Flom says. “He was calm, circumspect, and grateful for the support that everyone’s giving him. He’s a thoughtful guy, a smart guy. He is wondering why the government hasn’t acted but he’s been through this before. How does the human spirit survive that? I don’t know.”

A steadfast opponent of the death penalty, Flom also wants people to know what Reed’s life is like right now, condemned to death but always under observation, lest he take his own life or die for medical reasons. “Once you have your date set, there’s a whole grim ritual that doesn’t start when they ask you for your last meal,” Flom says. “It starts days or weeks before when they ask you where you want your body to be sent and put you in a death cell where you’re monitored 24 hours a day. Rodney talked about how they put a camera in his cell, right by the toilet. He said, ‘You know, my most private moments now are on display.’

“But in spite of all this, as listeners of the podcast will hear, he doesn’t come across as angry. There’s no self-pity. He’s very resolute. He knows he’s innocent. He knows there are people out there trying to help them. And he’s lonely. He misses his family. He’s got pictures of grandkids. He hasn’t had physical contact with another human in 20 years.”

For now, all Flom can do is tell Reed’s story and wait.

“It’s an important story regardless,” Flom says. “And of course, we know that all [Abbott] can do is grant a 30-day stay, so he’ll still be on death row. This awful, awful scenario will still be hanging over his head. Provided the governor does what we are all hoping, and many are praying, he will do, grants the stay and it goes back to the parole board, there will still be work to do, and it’ll still be important to tell the story.“

With the podcast out now, all eyes will be on the continuing legal battle that’s happening in court today, when a judge will hear arguments from the defense and prosecution over new filings in the case. Reed’s team is presenting 11 new witness statements, including three from people whose stories have not yet been heard, to bolster the case that Fennell, outraged over Stites’s affair with Reed, is responsible for her death. They’re also arguing that the judge who signed the execution order in July did not have the authority to do so. The prosecution, meanwhile, has countered with a Writ of Prohibition to prevent the district judge from hearing the defense’s motions. The ruling is expected soon. 

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