New clemency system could turn Rodney Reed’s 20 years of injustice into 20 days

Sandra Reed, the mother of death row prisoner Rodney Reed, shows her continued support of her son by carrying this placard around the parking lot during a break in a hearing in Bastrop County District Court on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. –  Photo: Ralph Barrera, Austin American-Statesman

by Allen Jones

Clemency is the most powerful tool in our criminal justice system. In the right hands, it would take only 20 days to render justice with a new clemency process. Under current law, it is not unheard of that an innocent person can spend more than 20 years behind bars before receiving justice. Just ask Texas inmate Rodney Reed.

Twenty-first century criminal justice and prison reform demand the power of clemency play a bigger role in the fight for justice and the fight against American injustice.

Many elected officials have used clemency – or  pardons – to forgive, right a wrong, or for humanitarian reasons from the beginning of this great nation. But unfortunately, the power to pardon has often been misused by powerful officials as a loophole to help a buddy to escape justice.

Did the founding fathers intend it to be this way? If not, we need a new clemency system in every state in America.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had until Nov. 20, 2019, to stop the scheduled execution by lethal injection of Rodney Reed.

Supporters of Rodney Reed rally outside the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 9 to stop his execution. A Clemency Board comprised of people with a passion for justice could have spared Reed 20 years of his life. – Photo: Paul Weber, AP

Thankfully, NBC News has reported, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals put Reed’s scheduled execution on indefinite hold five days before he was to be put to death. But there are many other deserving inmates to spare from a life of criminal injustice.

Reed’s saga began in 1998 after his conviction for the brutal 1996 rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites. But strong evidence exists, as the Free Rodney Reed petition, which has gathered 3 million signatures, and the support of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Kim Kardashian suggest, that Reed did not commit the crime. So why did the state of Texas allow Reed to sweat up until five days before his execution when the growing evidence suggests he should not even be in prison?

Sure, loved ones of the victim may be satisfied with the outcome of the 1998 verdict. They, too, deserve justice. But the victims should not get the last say on justice. Truth should. And elected or appointed officials should not stand in the way of truth to give artificial justice to the families of these victims.

Gov. Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, which consists of seven board members and 14 commissioners, dragged their feet despite the many voices calling for his release. Among those ignored, as reported Nov. 8, 2019, by the Houston Chronicle, are “26 state representatives – 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans, including several members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus – (who) called for Reed’s execution to be delayed, at least.”

The list of exculpatory evidence is long. But common sense suggests that, at the very least, the murder weapon should be tested for DNA. Reed’s appeals with this reasonable request have been rejected. Furthermore, the fact that an all-White jury might have questionable judgment dealing with a Black man who had a consensual relationship with this White woman is a red flag.

But to ignore the evidence that pointed to the original suspect, Jimmy Fennell, Ms. Stites’s fiancé at the time she was having an affair with a Black man, is an ear-piercing red siren calling for a halt to this scheduled execution.

Fennell, a former police officer, convicted of kidnapping and having improper sexual contact with a woman he took into custody, is now a free man. He served 10 years in prison for that crime, which happened after the rape and murder of Stites, who he learned was having an affair with a Black man.

Common sense and 21st century DNA technology to set the record straight could take 20 days, not 20 years, to give an innocent person his or her life back. Therefore, it is time for a change in who should control clemency, pardons and exonerations.

For 20 years, this is as close as Rodney Reed has been able to get to a visitor – placing hands on the thick glass that isolates him from human contact. He has not had a hug or a friendly touch in all those years.

I came up with the idea of a new clemency or pardon process while watching the well-respected news magazine 60 Minutes in the year 2000. I call it California Clemency Boards. Since then, I have realized this new process has more power than I first envisioned, including possible modification for use in any state or even the federal system.

The 60 Minutes episode was about California’s first version of its “Three Strikes Law.” It originally aired May 7, 2000. At some point, journalist Steve Kroft, asked then-Gov. Gray Davis to justify a 25-year-to-life sentence handed down to Steven Bell, who stole a bicycle, as his third strike. In my opinion, the governor failed in his attempt to justify such a harsh sentence. But my outrage gave birth to a solution to this kind of injustice.

California passed its first Three Strikes Law in 1994. More than 3,000 prisoners were caught up in this draconian law before California voters amended it in 2012.

Clemency is the most powerful tool in our justice system. But political and judicial forces currently control the power to grant clemency, or a pardon. As I see it, that’s putting the decision in the wrong hands.

So, I did a little research on the subject and soon discovered by reading California’s Constitution that a constitutional amendment could cause a change in the law as to who should control this power. Therefore, I embarked on creating a solution that I call “California Clemency Boards” – aka California Clemency.

My reasoning was, if a prisoner could take his or her case to a clemency board for review, the result could be relief from draconian or unjust sentences.

A version of “California Clemency” modified for the state of Texas could have bypassed the bureaucracy that has kept Rodney Reed in prison for two decades.

Individuals could take their case to a streamlined clemency process for review post-conviction if overzealous prosecution forced the issue. For instance, in the case of Reed, a pre-screened panel of no more than five well-compensated citizens looking over the same exculpatory evidence that Gov. Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardon and Parole refused to examine more closely could have rendered a decision in 20 days.

There are many Rodney Reeds in our criminal justice system, along with others fighting different types of criminal injustice. Some you can only pray for, but for others, I hope California Clemency will soon be a part of their answered prayers.

I will be spending all the year 2020 not trying to open the eyes of people who get it. My mission for 2020 will be to educate as many as possible on how the power of clemency can be used safely as a comprehensive answer to real criminal justice and prison reform anywhere in America.

A more detailed view of my new clemency process is available at CaliforniaClemency.org. My slogan: “Power to the People to Pardon People.”

It is high time Americans take a closer look at this tool’s power to reduce the time to free an innocent person from prison or be used to correct many other acts of injustice in America.

San Francisco writer Allen Jones, author of “Case Game: Activating the Activist,” can be reached at 415-756-7733 or jones-allen@att.net. Visit his website, at californiaclemency.org.