Why celebrities are getting invested in US criminal justice reform
Celebrities are rallying around the cause, but is it all self-serving, or even effective?
When Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed learned he was granted a stay of execution in mid-November, Kim Kardashian West was by his side – literally. What she was doing visiting him in prison – outside of posting about it on Instagram – is not entirely clear; however, her presence was not entirely surprising. By that point, the case to save Reed’s life had become a true cause célèbre, receiving public support from A‑listers such as Rihanna and Gigi Hadid, as well as millions of signatures for an online petition advocating for his freedom. Kardashian West was among the first to speak (read: tweet) out. “When we got the news [of his stay of execution], it was just this overwhelming sigh of relief and hope,” she said in a televised interview soon after.
Convicted of the 1996 rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop, Texas, Reed has been imprisoned for over 22 years. Investigators at the time matched his DNA with evidence from Stites’ body; however, Reed maintains the DNA was there because he and Stites had a discreet, consensual relationship, and had seen each other the day before she was killed. While no other physical evidence connects Reed to the crime, prosecutors alleged in court that he managed to hijack Stites’ pickup truck while she drove to work on the morning of 23rd April, before raping and strangling her to death. Solely based on that evidence, an all-white jury found Reed, a black man, guilty of murdering Stites, a white woman. When prosecutors invoked Reed’s tenuous connection to a number of other sexual assault cases, only one of which he was actually charged for (and later acquitted of), the jury approved the use of the death penalty.
As Reed’s execution date approached, emerging evidence overwhelmingly suggested his innocence. Not only was the prosecution’s argument lacking in evidence, but it was also forensically inconsistent (without a coherent timeline) and incomplete (without DNA testing of the actual murder weapon, Stites’ belt). Most importantly, Stites’ fiancé at the time of her murder, Jimmy Fennell, came under increased scrutiny. Fennell, a white cop, was the prime suspect in the case before Reed’s DNA was recovered from Stites’ body. Fennell later served a 10-year prison sentence, from 2008 to 2018, for raping a woman in his custody. One of his fellow inmates, a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood, signed an affidavit stating that Fennell confessed to Stites’ murder, and said, “I had to kill my n***** loving fiancé.”
At the same time, celebrities such as Isaiah Washington, T.I. and Meek Mill, among others, publicly voiced their support for Reed, pressuring the state’s judicial powers to consider new evidence with the public support of an online petition. Oprah advocated for Reed on CBS This Morning, and Dr. Phil dedicated a two-part segment on his show to the case. Kardashian West, for her part, tweeted directly at Texas Governor Greg Abbott, imploring him to stay Reed’s execution in consideration of the new evidence and “DO THE RIGHT THING”. By the first week in November, the celebrity contingent had fully mobilised, attempting to save Reed’s life and affect criminal justice reform with the machines of star power and public influence.
It wasn’t a far-fetched idea. “We have politicians that do a great job of commanding media attention, but based on my research, celebrities are much better at doing it, even on political issues [and] even competing with presidents,” says Dr. Mark Harvey, Director of Graduate and Undergraduate Programs at the University of Saint Mary and author of the 2017 book Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy. Well before the US elected its first celebrity president, Dr. Harvey found that “celebrities are actually seen as more credible than politicians along a lot of political issues”.
According to Dr. Harvey, part of what determines a celebrity’s credibility on an issue is the perceived authenticity of his or her involvement. Kardashian West’s recent activist awakening, for example, has garnered mixed responses from the public. Comments on her Rodney Reed Instagram post range from effusive (“This is so inspiring!”) to caustic (“You did nothing”). At issue – and this goes for all celebrity advocacy – is to what extent Kardashian West sincerely hopes to make a difference, or is simply “virtue signalling” (i.e. making an ostentatious and calculated display of righteousness).
In 2018, she garnered near-universal praise after successfully lobbying Trump for the release of Alice Marie Johnson – who was serving a sentence of life without parole for a first-time, nonviolent drug charge – only to wait a year before using Johnson in an ad for her new shapewear line, Skims. “No good deed goes unpublicised in the Kardashian universe,” wrote The Daily Beast’s Alaina Demopoulos at the time.
Often, however, staying silent on an issue is equally inadvisable for celebrities, who are increasingly seen as obligated to use their massive platforms for good. In 2016, Taylor Swift was excoriated for cashing in on her image of carefully curated feminism while remaining mum on Trump’s rise to power. For many, when she finally spoke out in 2018, it was too little too late. Celebrities often find themselves in a double bind: risk speaking up, pissing people off, and maybe appear to be a craven opportunist, or risk staying silent, perhaps betraying their conscience, and appear irresponsible and cowardly. This is quite a change from the early to mid-20th century, when stars were often contractually restricted from voicing their political opinions: now they’re judged by how well their opinions are vocalised. Dr. Harvey attributes this change to the increasing polarisation of the media and decreasing levels of trust in the government.
Regardless of their motivations, however, celebrities can catalyse positive change. Alice Marie Johnson was freed in large part due to Kardashian West’s lobbying. Her spotlight in a shapewear commercial, however opportunistic, did have some political significance, if only as a reminder to the public of her harrowing experience (and probably a healthy, much-needed pay cheque).
When it comes to the case of Rodney Reed and the death penalty, Henderson Hill, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, is explicit about the positive effects of celebrity advocacy: “For the first time, non-lawyers and people with social standing are raising questions, and, increasingly, courts and other political actors are being forced to answer.”
Hill explains that, in the 1990s, Texas “was the killing fields,” where people were executed by the dozens every year. “No one gave a wit about what the evidence was at trial, what was not investigated, what the social history [of the accused was], or what … mental illnesses may have impaired the accused – all of that got very short shrift.”
When contained within the walls of the courthouse, incompetently investigated death penalty cases can easily get lost within the inner workings of the legal system, despite appeals and the emergence of new evidence. “It closes the books on the backs of people that the system just doesn’t care about,” Hill says, which is something that “celebrities have the capacity to shine a light on [in a way that] that public defenders and cause lawyers just don’t have the platform to”.
Still, Reed has not yet been exonerated; his case has been sent back to trial, where hopefully justice will be served. The extent to which the groundswell of celebrity advocacy was responsible for Reed’s stay of execution is impossible to say; however, it did unquestionably raise the case’s public profile, increasing the pressure on legislators to at least gesture towards redressing our hastily retributive justice system. That it took this long is perhaps unsurprising for those who have historically borne the brunt of our nation’s shameful inadequacies, and know all too well that justice is neither blind nor are her scales calibrated. Case in point: the next time we hear about Rodney Reed, it may be in a Skims ad.