WWhen death row inmate Rodney Reed found out his execution had been called off – just days before it took place – he was sitting in a tiny visitation room at a maximum security prison in East Texas , speaking to Kim Kardashian West.
The reality TV star had traveled to the Polunsky Unit, an hour northeast of Houston, to visit the convict whose cause she had championed, repeatedly posting photos and tweeting at him. support for his assertions of innocence. By the time the Texas Criminal Appeals Court stayed the execution in November 2019, Reed’s case had drawn other famous supporters – from Beyoncé and Dr Phil to Oprah and Gigi Hadid.
Two years later, Reed finally gets a hearing next week, where his attorneys plan to present new evidence they say shows Reed played no part in the 1996 murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites, and that he deserves a new trial.
Whatever attention the hearing draws, Reed’s case continues to be a touchstone in the debate over the role that celebrities and advertising have come to play in the U.S. justice system, particularly in sentencing. of death. The visibility of superstars involvement has only seemed to grow in recent years, as social media gives celebrities an outsized voice and American support for the death penalty wanes.
Judges do not formally review famous people’s pleas. But many jurists, including those who will decide Reed’s fate, are elected and not immune to political pressure. Governors and presidents have no restrictions as they consider leniency, and Kardashian West persuaded then-President Donald Trump – whose own presidential campaign was based on the power of fame – to release several federal prisoners who were not on death row.
Death penalty advocates say celebrities often draw attention to individual cases, but that only goes to prove how fickle the system can be. While more than 1,500 people have been executed in the United States since 1977, only a small fraction have received such attention.
“Celebrity involvement is helpful in raising some of the injustices in the criminal justice system that we wouldn’t otherwise know,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU capital punishment project. “But the idea that whether you live or die may depend on whether or not you’re lucky enough to have a lawyer who can defend your case in front of someone with that kind of megaphone – that’s just an indication. of the arbitrariness of our system. “
For decades, individual death penalty cases have attracted the attention of famous writers, actors and musicians. In the 1960s and 1970s, authors Truman Capote and Norman Mailer published In Cold Blood and the executioner’s song, respectively, the two criminal accounts of recent executions. Two decades later, Sister Helen Prejean’s book, detailing the last days of a convicted Louisiana prisoner, became the award-winning film Dead Man Walking. Subsequently, film star Susan Sarandon herself became an activist against the death penalty; most recently, promoting the innocence allegations of Oklahoma prisoner Richard Glossip.
Perhaps no one on death row has attracted more attention than Gary Graham, who was convicted of a murder in Houston and sentenced to death in 1981 at the age of 17. He always maintained his innocence and eventually got the support of actor Danny Glover and the singers. Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie and Harry Belafonte.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as the country grappled with a spate of crime, opposing executions was controversial and over 70% of Americans supported the death penalty.
At a rally in 1993, crowds smashed Kenny Rogers’ music tapes and a Texas state senator spoke out against “a new level of due process – and that’s the Hollywood jury.” , the celebrity jury ”. Graham was granted a stay of execution that year, but by the time he faced the stretcher again, in 2000, his case had become so controversial that members of the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panther clashed among a crowd of demonstrators outside the prison. . Inside, Graham had invited actor Bianca Jagger, Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Jesse Jackson to attend his execution.
This was all a warning to Anthony Graves, another Texas death row inmate who was also working to prove his innocence at the time. He said celebrities get attention, but it’s public relations: “The lawyer who stays up all night reading your case, the investigator digging up evidence, witnesses coming forward – that’s the work, ”said Graves, who was eventually exonerated in 2010. Celebrities could even fund investigations that produce new evidence, he said. “We ask that you use more than your name, that you reach for your wallet.”
Most of the celebrities who have focused on individual cases have supported people who pretend to be innocent. Before Troy Davis was executed in 2011 in Georgia, in a case stemming from the murder of a police officer on leave, Davis’s claims of innocence were defended by singer Michael Stipe of REM and rapper Big Boi of Outkast, among others. In Oklahoma, Julius Jones’ claims of innocence in a 1999 murder recently received support from actress Viola Davis and NFL and NBA players.
This has sparked criticism that celebrities generally ignore incarcerated people who admit their guilt, but beg for mercy.
“You have to fit into a certain mold to have a chance,” said Billy Tracy, on death row in Texas. “But there is a lot more wrong with the death penalty than that.”
The focus on individual cases and allegations of innocence may change. Many celebrities have increasingly spoken about political issues, including advocating for federal drug sentencing reform, ending the cash bond, and abolishing the death penalty altogether.
In December 2020, federal prisoner Brandon Bernard secured the support of Kardashian West, as well as actor Alyssa Milano and lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Bernard did not claim his innocence in the deaths of two youth ministers, but his lawyers noted his limited role in crime and his youth at the time, as they asked Trump to spare his life. They failed and Bernard became one of 13 people executed during the Trump administration.
In another case that did not involve declarations of innocence, author Suleika Jaouad campaigned earlier this year to stop the execution of Quintin Jones in Texas, garnering support from actors Mandy Patinkin and Sarah Paulson. Supporters have said Jones deserves pity because he has grown into a remorseful and generous man. Jones was executed in May.
Over the past decade, the rise of social media has made it easier for celebrities to get involved in death penalty cases: they no longer have to show up at rallies or hope reporters include theirs. quotes in an article. They can just go live on Instagram or start a tweet, and expect the media coverage to follow.
It can be difficult to understand why a particular case goes viral, but Reed’s story is undoubtedly a dramatic one. Reed, who is black, has long maintained his innocence in the rape and murder of Stites, a white woman in 1996. But Reed has struggled to get the courts to consider his claims, even though new witnesses have said he and Stites had been in a consensual relationship – much to the chagrin of her fiancé, a white policeman named Jimmy Fennell.
Fennell himself went to jail for an unrelated sex crime, and just before Reed’s 2019 execution was canceled, Project Innocence released an affidavit from another incarcerated person, who said Fennell had confessed to Stites’ murder and used a racial insult against Reed.
Fennell has repeatedly denied any involvement in Stites’ death. (Fennell could not be reached. The law firm that represented him in 2019 said he was no longer their client.) But next week, Reed’s lawyers plan to call Fennell to the stand. , as well as many other witnesses. Lawyers argued that prosecutors originally failed to turn over all the evidence they had of Reed’s innocence and relied on flawed scientific evidence for the crime timeline. .
The goal, said one of Reed’s attorneys, Quinncy McNeal, is to show that “no reasonable juror would vote to convict” with the new evidence. “Not only could someone vote to acquit, but no one would vote to convict,” McNeal said.
Defense lawyers and prisoner advocates have said that while celebrity involvement can help individuals like Reed and bring attention to the death penalty in general, it can create more disparities in an already crowded system. ‘between them. After all, everyone on death row is named a lawyer – not everyone is named Kim Kardashian.
But Christina Swarns, executive director of The Innocence Project, said the nonprofit legal advocacy organization regularly works with prominent figures to bring attention to prisoners’ pleas, which Swarns says does not was necessary only because of the sheer volume of business in the system.
“There are so many cases going on all the time that sometimes we need celebrity involvement for a case to stand out,” she said. “It really speaks to the difficulty of getting a compelling case reviewed. “
Reed’s attorney admitted that celebrity involvement doesn’t help everyone. “I’m not convinced that’s a good thing system wide,” McNeal said, “but it’s a hell of a good thing for Rodney Reed.”
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall project, a nonprofit news organization covering the US criminal justice system. Register for the Marshall Project’s bulletin, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.