Kim Kardashian, Rodney Reed, and the absurdity of celebrity legal intervention
Every day for the last 21 years, Rodney Reed has woken up in a Texas correctional facility. On May 28, 1989, the state sentenced him to life in prison for a crime he did not commit: the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites.
In 13 days, Reed, a Black man, is sentenced to be executed. He will wake up in a maximum security prison cell 13 more times before systemic corruption ends his life in the most slow and painful way imaginable: a life behind bars, from which escape eludes you utterly. A literal nightmare.
Reed has maintained his innocence for the entirety of his trial and imprisonment. From the date of Stites’s death — she was strangled and left in a ditch — evidence has continued to mount in favor of Reed’s innocence and in direct connection with Stites’s cop fiance, Jimmy Fennell.
Unsurprisingly, in 2007, Fennell found himself handed a 10-year prison sentence for raping a woman while on duty. Since May 2018, he has walked free. While imprisoned, it would seem Fennell pissed off someone in the local white supremacist gang, as a man named “Arthur Snow” has, as recently as October 29, submitted a sworn affidavit that alleges a confession from Fennell himself.
The imminence of Reed’s cause has sparked a renewal in activism aimed at his release. While Reed’s brother and sister-in-law, Rodrick Reed and Uwana Akpan, have worked tirelessly for Reed’s freedom since the day of his conviction, celebrities like Rihanna and Meek Mill have added their amplitude to his cause.
The Innocence Project, the organization that represents Reed, recently held a screening of State v. Reed, a documentary detailing Reed’s case, followed by a panel of his lawyers alongside Rodrick Reed and Akpan. They graciously took the many difficult questions the audience asked them — morbid curiosity, I guess. What is it like having a brother who you know is innocent grow older and older and farther and farther away, all on the other side of bulletproof glass? Difficult, as you might imagine.
What seemed to sadden them most of all, though, was the fact that Reed’s case is so ensnared within the barbs and limitations of the U.S. judicial system, and most time is spent just watching and waiting — for a miracle, basically.
That night, I walked out into the pouring rain (a bomb cyclone/the new normal, if you will), but managed to text through my wet phone screen: “Kim Kardashian needs to take this case.”
My well-laid plans for a somehow-viral thinkpiece and/or hacking of Kris Jenner’s business cell proved futile, as Kardashian involved herself in the case just a week later, beginning with a call to Texas governor Greg Abbott:
“PLEASE @GovAbbott How can you execute a man when since his trial, substantial evidence that would exonerate Rodney Reed has come forward and even implicates the other person of interest. I URGE YOU TO DO THE RIGHT THING.”
Per TMZ (tragically the most well-versed source on this issue), Kardashian has now spoken with Reed and is “working tirelessly behind the scenes to provide legal resources to Reed as he tries to get a stay of execution.”
This is not Kardashian’s first foray into freeing the wrongfully convicted. She has used her platform to advocate for the release of Cyntoia Brown, and has had several unfortunate meetings with Trump and his kin that led the commutation of prisoners like Alice Marie Johnson in 2018.
Kardashian has even undertaken the study of law herself, and is currently “reading the law” under the supervision of Oakland-based attorneys Jessica Jackson and Erin Haney, who operate the prison reform organization #Cut50.
I don’t doubt Kardashian’s legal abilities. By all accounts, she seems like a dedicated and serious student of the law, and what she lacks in experience she can easily make up in cold cash. Given her legal track record, Reed’s odds may even seem favorable. And really, I doubt that he or his advocates care more about who is responsible for his freedom than that freedom itself.
Already, Reed’s brother Rodrick has expressed his gratitude in a note published by several sources: “I want you to know you are a major God-send to my family — more than you may ever fully realize in this lifetime,” he wrote. “You are a blessing to all the families you advocate for. We’re so glad you have publicly voiced that you also believe he is innocent.”
In Rodrick’s grateful words, there is an echo of the helplessness of his brother’s situation. His praise — so genuine and yet so forlorn — paints Kardashian as the closest thing to a miracle one can get. While this miracle may prove to be Reed’s only salvation, it is deeply disturbing at its core.
What is a justice system where a verifiably innocent person’s sole legal recourse is not the power of truth, but the power of celebrity clout? How must it feel to have spent years advocating for your brother, travelling from schools to conferences to city halls telling your family’s story, only to be confronted with the fact that his life may hinge on the doings of a celebrity who just happened upon a relevant Tweet?
Celebrity glitter and high-profile criminal cases have crossed paths plenty of times. Not just in the sense of celebrities advocating for prison reform and prisoner’s rights. The courtroom itself has repeatedly served as host to a range of sensationalized dealings. The last decades have made names like Casey Anthony, the Menendez Brothers, Jodi Arias, and all of their legal teams household names. In some sort of irony there aren’t quite any words for, the O.J. Simpson trial is partially responsible for the rise of the KarJenner empire: Robert Kardashian was a member of O.J. Simpson’s legal team, and Kris Jenner was a close personal friend of Nicole Brown Simpson.
In the cases listed above, the trials and all their moving parts took on an ephemeral quality. The world was captivated by the televised trials, the red-eyed defendants, the razor-tongued lawyers, and the hair of Marsha P. Johnson. America cannot resist spectacle.
In the case of Rodney Reed, this spectacle is another distraction from the reality he is living in this very moment: trapped, with the clock ticking. And ticking.
And what of the other Rodney Reed’s out there? The Reed’s past and yet to come? Who is swooping down from Calabasas, in a perfectly tailored Armani suit, to demand justice for them? Kardashian is not responsible for the fate of every wrongfully convicted individual, nor should she be — but I fear the unsustainability of celebrity intervention being the only thing standing between an innocent man and a lethal injection.
I pray that someday soon, Rodney Reed will wake up a free man. If Kardashian is the impetus for his release, so be it. But what if the power of the KarJenner empire is all the hope we have left? Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a reality we can rule out completely. Though, if justice and FaceTune are equal in the realm of illusion, maybe it is meant to be.