Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Guilty, The Innocent, And The Corrupt: Ferguson & The Case of Rodney Reed

I've recently learned about the case of Rodney Reed. He is currently on death row in Texas for the murder of Stacey Stites. The curious thing about this case is that the victim's family is convinced of Reed's innocence and believes, instead, that the actual murderer was her fiance, Jimmy Lewis Fennell, Jr.. 

At the time of Stacey Stites' death, Fennell was a 34-year-old police sergeant with the Georgetown, Texas, Police Department. At the time of the murder Fennell was not adequately investigated as a suspect. According to an article in the Austin Chronicle, “Police never searched the apartment Stites and Fennell shared, though it was the last place she was reportedly seen alive, and they had returned to Fennell the pickup truck she'd allegedly been driving the morning she disappeared before thoroughly processing it for evidence.”

Since the murder of Stites and the conviction of Rodney Reed, Sergeant Jimmy Lewis Fennell, Jr. confessed and has been convicted of raping a young woman (which he did while on duty). The victim of that attack, in an interview, discussed how he had casually raped her in a calm sadistic manner. She also explains how Fennell was the responding officer when she immediately called 911 after the attack.

After the conviction of Fennell (sentenced to 10 years and scheduled for release in 2018), and during the subsequent appeal of Rodney Reed, a pattern of violent behavior by Fennell against other women  was revealed.

During Reed's trial for the murder of Stacey Stites, evidence of their secret consensual relationship was overlooked (which explained his DNA on her body) and, Reed's trial lawyers did not adequately challenge the forensic investigator at the time. Witnesses who could verify the secret consensual relationship between Reed and Stites were not called during the trial, nor were those who could have established an alibi for him regarding the time of her death.

The case of Rodney Reed, in and of itself, is a horrific nightmare reminiscent of a Dostoyevsky novel. And I encourage others to look into the details of this case and spread the word  about it in an effort to prevent his execution by the state of Texas in January 2015. The world can often be a cruel and unjust place but we should not always resign ourselves to injustices and curl up in a ball – at the very least we might each be able to play a small role in saving the life of an innocent man.

At the same time... we should recognize that this case didn't not occur in a bubble. The case of Rodney Reed is part of deep systemic injustices which threaten us all. Oftentimes there is too much of a disconnect between one story or one issue and another. Making the connections between war and climate change, for example, might be a tedious task even for those who are regularly inclined to concern themselves about such matters. However, I'd like to suggest that there are certain similarities in the case of Rodney Reed which parallel the current events which are transpiring in Ferguson, Missouri.

Just as the police overlooked a very likely suspect in the strangulation death of Stacey Stites (most likely because that potential suspect, Fennell, was a fellow officer), it seems that another officer of the law is now getting a pass in regard to the death of another civilian. This isn't even to say that Darrell Wilson (the officer who shot Mike Brown [an unarmed teenager]) is undoubtedly guilty of murder according to the letter of the law. But regardless of what narrative you believe, and regardless of which facts and pieces of forensic evidence you believe, it is very rare for prosecutors to not get an indictment when they seek charges against someone. A grand jury seeking an indictment is not responsible for determining absolute guilt or innocence. Rather, the grand jury is tasked with determining whether or not there is evidence that a crime may have been committed so that charges can be filed and criminal proceedings, such as a trial, can the be conducted. And whether or not you personally believe that Officer Darrell Wilson is guilty... eyewitnesses saying that he shot Mike Brown while the teen was trying to surrender (with his hands up) should have been enough for an indictment. A bullet wound on the palm of Mike Brown's hand would also seem to corroborate the eyewitness testimony.

Again, this isn't even to say that Officer Darrell Wilson is undoubtedly guilty of murdering Mike Brown without any legal justification whatsoever. But as Ben Casselman recently pointed out... it's incredibly rare for a prosecutor to not get an indictment when seeking charges against an individual. “Former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to 'indict a ham sandwich.' The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.”

So what you see in the events surrounding both the deaths of Mike Brown and Stacey Stites is a double standard being applied to police officers. Regarding the murder of Stacey Stites the police failed to adequately investigate one of their own despite obvious reasons to do so -- and in the death of Mike Brown you see the failure of the state to even indict the officer involved despite eye witness testimony and forensic evidence which suggests he acted inappropriately.

When normal members of society who are not members of law enforcement are potentially involved in a crime... the book gets thrown at them – sometimes even when they are innocent. But when law enforcement officers are potentially involved in a crime they are frequently given a pass. This is systemic beyond merely the two specific instances mentioned in this article. Law enforcement officers commit egregious crimes on a daily basis all across the United States. If they are somehow caught their punishment often consists of paid leave and/or a transfer to a different department somewhere else.  And perhaps the worst part about this is that current officers undoubtedly see this pattern of justice. They see that they are above the law – and that in itself might be a corrupting factor. Perhaps worse still... blossoming young psychopaths have an ideal career choice put in front of them.

Mind you, the problem of systemic and rampant abuse of power by the police is only one part of the larger problems facing modern society in the United States. The legally justified violence committed by the state is a problem which exceeds the brazenly excessive criminality of police officers. The prison-industrial complex itself is problematic.

We need justice in Ferguson, we need justice for #RodneyReed, and we need to abolish the prison-industrial complex. As long as the police state remains intact it will be much more difficult to address any other problems in our society.

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