Everyone on death row has a lawyer. Not everyone has a Kim Kardashian.
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 , talking 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 Court of Criminal Appeals 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 lawyers plan to present new evidence they say shows Reed played no part in the 1996 murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites and 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 such restrictions when considering leniency, and Kardashian West persuaded then-President Trump, whose own presidential campaign was based on the power of fame, to release several federal prisoners who weren’t 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, the authors Truman Hood and Norman Mailer published In cold blood and The executioner’s song, respectively, the two criminal accounts of the then 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. Then the movie 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 wave of crime, opposing executions was controversial and more than 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 Party clashed among a crowd of protesters outside the prison. . Inside, Graham had invited actress Bianca Jagger, Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Jesse Jackson to attend his execution.
It was all just a warning for Anthony Graves, another death row inmate from Texas 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 file, the investigator digging up evidence, witnesses show up – that’s work, ”said Graves, who was ultimately exonerated in 2010. 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’ claims of innocence were defended by the singer REM’s Michael Stipe and Outkast rapper Big Boi, among others. In Oklahoma, Julius JonesThe actress’ claims of innocence in a murder in 1999 recently received support from the actress Viola Davis and the players of the NFL and NBA.
This has sparked criticism that celebrities generally ignore incarcerated people who admit their guilt, but beg for mercy.
“You have to fit a certain mold to have a chance,” Texas death row inmate said Billy Tracy. “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, end the deposit in cash and abolish the death sentence absolutely.
In December 2020, a federal prisoner Brandon bernard won the support of Kardashian West, as well as actress 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 called on President 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 relate to allegations of innocence, the author Suleika Jaouad campaign earlier this year to stop the execution of Quintin jones in Texas, with the support of 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 execution was canceled in 2019, Project Innocence disclosed an affidavit of another incarcerated person, who said Fennell confessed to Stites’ murder and used a racial insult against Reed.
Fennell has repeatedly refuse implication in the death of Stites. (Fennell could not be reached. The law firm that represented him in 2019 has said he is no longer his client.). But next week, Reed’s attorneys plan to call Fennell to the stand, in the same way numerous 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 worked with prominent figures to bring attention to prisoners’ pleas, which Swarns said no This is only necessary due to the sheer volume of cases 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.”