Everyone on death row gets a lawyer. Not everyone gets a Kim Kardashian
Rodney Reed’s case was championed by the reality TV star but celebrities’ role in the criminal justice system is complicated
When death row prisoner Rodney Reed found out his execution had been called off – only days before it was to occur – he was sitting in a tiny visiting room at an east Texas maximum-security prison, talking to Kim Kardashian West.
The reality TV star had traveled to the Polunsky Unit, an hour north-east of Houston, to visit the condemned man whose cause she had taken up, repeatedly posting photos and firing off tweets in support of his claims of innocence. By the time the Texas court of criminal appeals stayed the execution in November 2019, Reed’s case had attracted other celebrity supporters – from Beyoncé and Dr Phil, to Oprah and Gigi Hadid.
Two years later, Reed is finally getting 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 that he deserves a new trial.
Whatever attention the hearing attracts, Reed’s case continues to be a touchstone in the debate over the role celebrities and publicity have come to play in the American justice system, especially in the death penalty. The visibility of superstar involvement has only seemed to grow in recent years, as social media gives celebrities an outsized voice and Americans’ support for the death penalty wanes.
Judges do not officially consider pleas from famous people. But many jurists, including those who will decide Reed’s fate, are elected and not immune to political pressures. Governors and presidents have no such restrictions as they consider clemency, and Kardashian West persuaded the then president, Donald Trump – whose own presidential campaign was built on the power of celebrity – to free several federal prisoners who were not on death row.
Advocates against the death penalty say celebrities often bring welcome attention to individual cases, but that only proves how fickle the system can be. While more than 1,500 people have been executed in the US since 1977, only a small fraction have received such high-profile attention.
“Celebrity involvement is useful for raising up some of the injustices of the criminal justice system that we would not otherwise know,” said Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “But the idea that whether you live or die may turn on whether or not you are lucky enough to have a lawyer that can get 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 grabbed 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, both crime narratives about then recent executions. Two decades later, Sister Helen Prejean’s book, detailing the final days of a condemned Louisiana prisoner, became the award-winning movie Dead Man Walking. Afterward, the film’s star Susan Sarandon became an anti-death penalty activist herself; most recently promoting the innocence claims of the Oklahoma prisoner Richard Glossip.
Perhaps no person on death row attracted more attention than Gary Graham, who was convicted in a Houston murder and sentenced to death in 1981 at the age of 17. He always maintained his innocence, and eventually gained the support of the actor Danny Glover and singers Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie and Harry Belafonte.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as the nation grappled with a crime wave, opposing executions was controversial and more than 70% of Americans supported the death penalty.
At a 1993 rally, crowds smashed Kenny Rogers’ music tapes and a Texas state senator railed against “a new level of due process – and that’s the Hollywood jury, the celebrity jury”. Graham won a stay of execution that year, but by the time he faced the gurney again, in 2000, his case had become so contentious that members of the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panther party faced off among throngs of protesters outside the prison. Inside, Graham had invited the actor Bianca Jagger, Rev Al Sharpton and Rev Jesse Jackson to witness his execution.
This was all a cautionary tale for Anthony Graves, another Texas death row prisoner who was also working to prove his innocence at the time. He said celebrities bring attention, but that’s public relations: “The attorney staying up all night reading your case, the investigator unearthing evidence, witnesses coming forward – that’s the work,” said Graves, who was finally exonerated in 2010. Celebrities could even fund the investigations that produce new evidence, he said. “We ask that you use more than your name, that you reach into your wallet.”
Most celebrities who have focused on individual cases have supported people who claim they are innocent. Before Troy Davis was executed in 2011 in Georgia, in a case arising from the killing of an off-duty police officer, Davis’s claims of innocence were championed by the singer Michael Stipe of REM and rapper Big Boi of Outkast, among many others. In Oklahoma, Julius Jones’s claims of innocence in a 1999 killing have recently received support from the actor Viola Davis and players from the NFL and NBA.
That has prompted criticism that celebrities generally ignore incarcerated people who admit guilt, but beg for mercy.
“You have to fit a certain mold to get a chance,” said the Texas death row prisoner Billy Tracy. “But there’s a lot more wrong with the death penalty than that.”
The focus on individual cases, and on innocence claims, may be changing. Many celebrities have been increasingly vocal about policy issues, including advocating for federal drug sentencing reform, ending cash bail and abolishing the death penalty altogether.
In December 2020, federal prisoner Brandon Bernard won the support of Kardashian West, as well as the actor Alyssa Milano and lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Bernard did not claim innocence in the death of two youth ministers, but his advocates noted his limited role in the crime and his youth at the time, as they asked Trump to spare his life. They were unsuccessful, and Bernard became one of the 13 people executed under the Trump administration.
In another case that did not involve claims of innocence, the author Suleika Jaouad campaigned earlier this year to stop the execution of Quintin Jones in Texas, picking up support from the actors Mandy Patinkin and Sarah Paulson. Supporters said Jones deserved mercy because he had become a remorseful and generous man. Jones was executed in May.
In the last decade, the rise of social media has made it easier for celebrities to get involved in death penalty cases: they no longer have to appear at rallies or hope reporters include their quotes in a story. They can just go live on Instagram or fire off a tweet, and expect news coverage to follow.
It can be difficult to parse why a particular case goes viral, but Reed’s story is undoubtedly dramatic. Reed, who is Black, has long maintained his innocence in the 1996 rape and murder of Stites, a white woman. But Reed struggled to get courts to consider his claims, even though new witnesses said he and Stites had been in a consensual relationship – to the displeasure of her fiance, a white police officer named Jimmy Fennell.
Fennell himself went to prison for an unrelated sexual crime, and right before Reed’s execution was called off in 2019, the Innocence Project unveiled an affidavit from another incarcerated person, who said Fennell confessed to Stites’s murder and used a racial slur against Reed.
Fennell has repeatedly denied involvement in Stites’s 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, along with numerous other witnesses. The lawyers have argued that prosecutors did not originally turn over all the evidence they had pointing to Reed’s innocence, and that they relied on flawed scientific testimony for the timeline of the crime.
The aim, said one of Reed’s attorneys, Quinncy McNeal, is to show that “no reasonable juror would vote to convict” with the new evidence. “Not just that somebody might vote to acquit, but that nobody would vote to convict,” McNeal said.
Defense lawyers and prisoner advocates have said that while celebrity involvement can help individuals like Reed and draw attention to the death penalty generally, it can create more disparities in a system already full of them. After all, everyone on death row is appointed a lawyer – not everyone is appointed a Kim Kardashian.
But Christina Swarns, the executive director of the Innocence Project, said the non-profit legal defense organization regularly works with high-profile figures to draw attention to prisoners’ pleas, which Swarns said was only necessary because of the sheer volume of cases in the system.
“There are so many cases going on all the time that sometimes we need celebrity involvement to make a case stand out,” she said. “It really speaks to the difficulty of getting a compelling case considered.”
Reed’s lawyer acknowledged that celebrity involvement does not help everyone. “I am not convinced that it’s a good thing systemwide,” McNeal said, “but it’s a damn good thing for Rodney Reed.”
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletter, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.