Students Rally around Death Row Inmate

Psychology senior Ruqiya Barreh (far left) was one of the students who attended the letter-writing party to help free death-row inmate Rodney Reed, whose execution is scheduled for Nov. 20. Photo by Bhavan Mehta | Mercury Staff

Junior hosts letter-writing party in support of man whose capital punishment case received nationwide attention, outrage

The impending execution of one death row inmate in Texas has sparked outrage nationwide after new evidence cast doubt on his guilty verdict. In one UTD apartment, students gathered to try and save his life.

Pizza, cider and snacks are laid out on international political economy junior Sarah Whipple’s dining room table. In the living room, she and other UTD students handwrite letters to Governor Greg Abbott as well as the Texas Board of Parole and Pardons. All of this effort is to stop the Nov. 20 execution of Rodney Reed, who was sentenced to death in 1998 for the rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacy Stites on April 23, 1996 near Austin.

New evidence, including a confession from the victim’s then-fiance, has caused public outcry and prompted celebrities such as Rihanna and Oprah to speak out in support of Reed. After hearing about Reed’s case, Whipple organized a letter-writing party to try and stop the execution.

“Social media is great, petitions are great, but sometimes you just have to flood someone’s office with letters, you know. I feel very strongly that he’s innocent, but even if he’s not, he doesn’t deserve to be murdered by the state,” Whipple said. “I wanted to encourage people to really engage with that and do something tangible.”

Abbott has commuted the sentence of one death row inmate since taking office in 2015, breaking with the practices of previous governors and granting clemency for the first time in over ten years. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Texas accounted for more than half of the nation’s executions in 2018, with 13 inmates dying by lethal injection. Despite these facts, psychology senior Ruqiya Barreh said student activism is still necessary.

“In spite of the apparent injustice that Abbott has displayed, especially concerning death penalty cases, I think if we allow him to continue these things without taking a stand against these issues, then that means oppression has won,” Barreh said. “We can’t allow ourselves to sit idle when there is something we can do, however small it is just because we believe it’s impossible or not worth it. At the end, these are lives that we are fighting for, so it’s important to put in any effort that we can.”

Reed’s case, Whipple said, has racial undertones. According to an article from The Washington Post, one of Fennell’s colleagues said the former officer had told him that his fiance was “involved with a n——-.” Additionally, the inmate that Fennell confessed to, a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood, said Fennell told him that he had to kill his “n——- loving fiance.”

“You have this dynamic where there’s a white cop who was trying to join the Aryan Brotherhood and there’s a black man who’s always maintained his innocence,” Whipple said. “Which one do we look at with more skepticism? I think that sort of colors it both at the time of the original trial, but I think still today, (it) would color peoples’ perception of innocence.”

The prosecution’s case lay in DNA evidence from a semen sample from Stites’ body that matched Reed. At the time, Reed initially denied knowing Stites, but eventually admitted to a consensual affair with the victim. While prosecutors point to Reed’s reluctance as evidence of his guilt, Reed said the details of the situation, including the fact that at the time of their affair, Stites was engaged to a white police officer, kept him from admitting the truth.

Former chief staff attorney and executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas Natalie Roetzel, who teaches Innocence Project courses at UTD said Reed’s conviction makes it harder to prove his innocence in a court of law.

“The law explains that in order to be convicted of a crime, a defendant must be found guilty ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ Unfortunately, this means the burden placed on the defendant to have his or her name cleared post-conviction goes up and oftentimes requires that the defendant present new evidence of innocence that wasn’t available at the time of trial,” Ossenfort said in an email interview. “Legally, this is a difficult burden to satisfy, which means that the defendant has a very uphill battle when seeking exoneration or other legal relief from the courts.”

Reed is being represented by the Innocence Project, not the Innocence Project of Texas. Although both organizations are part of the Innocence Network, the two are legally separate entities.

The event held in support of Reed isn’t the first time Whipple and her friends have become involved in on-campus activism, international political economy senior Samee Ahmad said.

“I think it’s really important to build collective movements on campus, especially because students, though they may not realize it, are very important parts of national political discourse. This apartment was also where we drew up some of the posters for the Botham Jean protest two weeks ago. Two nights ago we had a Kashmir solidarity protest,” he said. “It’s important to have this space, even though it may seem futile, but the long-term goal and the vision is to build a coherent, rigorous and involved incubator of student activism on campus.”

Whipple said that students can get involved by signing the petition and writing letters to Abbott as well. While she’s happy to see students rallying around Reed, Whipple said this issue goes far beyond his case and that she hopes to see systemic changes come from not only Reed’s case, but others like it.

“Our criminal justice system operates by taking your worst thing and making your life hell for it and I really hope that we can start looking at that at a more systemic level,” she said. “I want us to reconsider the criminal justice system and what it means to have justice in America. Part of that is rallying around individual cases. Part of that is taking a step back and thinking about what it means to be a just society.”

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