Rodney Reed, A Story That is All Too Familiar

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tags: Black History, lynching, executions

Elisabeth Pearson is an intern with the History News Network.

Rodney Reed, 51, was scheduled for execution on November 20th by the state of Texas.  On November 15th, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals indefinitely stayed Reed's execution to review his case.


Many doubt Reed’s guilt and the case is drawing attention from the media and celebrities. Rodney Reed was convicted of murdering and raping 19-year-old Stacey Stites in 1996. Initially, Red claimed he did not know Stites but eventually confessed that Stites and he were having an affair. For over two decades, Reed has adamantly maintained his innocence. 


New evidence suggests that Stites fiancé, a police officer named Jimmy Fennel, actually committed the crime. Fennel was released from prison in 2018 after pleading guilty to kidnapping and raping a woman while he was on duty in 2008. In a sworn affidavit, Arthur J. Snow Jr, who served time with Fennel in prison, said  Fennell bragged about killing his fiancée when Fennell said “I have to kill my n***** - loving fiancée.”.


The rough outline of this case reminds me of America’s long and violent history towards black men. The criminalization of black men as sexually deviant and harmful to white women was first sensationalized after Reconstruction in the 1880s. Ida B Wells, an African American journalist and activist, investigated cases where black men accused of raping white women were lynched by mobs. Ida B Wells often reflected on the lynching of black men in her neighborhood of Memphis and began to question the rape allegations as being consensual interracial affairs. In fact she found that in some cases black men who were accused of raping a white woman were actually having a consensual sex. At other times, she found accusations of rape to be completely false and used as a tactic to subjugate black men economically. 


In Mia Bay’s To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B Wells, Bay notes the criminalization of African American males was based on the idea of male sexuality and the evolution of races. Bay also notes that Wells concluded that “white southerners routinely invoked the sanctity of white womanhood as a justification for violence against blacks”. This teaches us, that in the post Reconstruction Era, white men were particularly threatened by the presence of a free black man and created narratives to tear them down. Combined with the ideology surrounding the myth of the black rapist, the criminalization of black men via legal and extralegal tactics became commonplace. This ideology set in motion a vicious and racist machine that has affected our judicial system throughout history.


In 1906, Chattanooga, Tennessee, a black man, Ed Johnson was wrongfully convicted and sentence to death for the rape of a white women.


In 1931, Paint Rock, Alabama, eight young black men were  wrongfully convicted of raping two white women and were subsequently executed. These men are more well known as the Scottsboro Boys. 


 In 1977, Monroe, Alabama, African American Brian Baldwin was wrongfully convicted of murdering and raping a 16-year-old white girl, and as a result was executed. He was coerced into confessing and there was evidence that he could not have committed the crime because he was right handed, and the murderer was left-handed. All evidence was lost or destroyed after Baldwins execution.


In 1988, four black men were wrongfully convicted for the murder and rape Carol Schmal, a white woman, and the murder of Lawrence Lionberg. This case is commonly referred to as The Ford Heights Four. Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams were sentenced to death while Kenneth Adams and Willie Rainge were imprisoned. 18 years later, all four men were exonerated. These men were convicted by false forensic testimony, coercion of witnesses, and police misconduct. Three investigative journalists disproved the entire case. 


The list of wrongful convictions of black men for raping and or murdering white women is endless. The list of black men not receiving their right to due process is even longer.


These are cases where there is either lack of evidence or exonerating evidence. These cases show that there is a dangerous ideology criminalizing black men as sexually while consecrating white women. Rodney Reed fits this pattern of injustice because he was sentenced to death while potentially exonerating evidence was ignored.