19 Years On, Anti-Death Penalty March Sees Progress

Yet time is running out for Ruben Gutierrez, Rodney Reed

Scott Cobb put together the first March to Abolish the Death Penalty in 2000, so when he speaks on the progress of the movement, it is with some authority. "Back then, the death penalty was like a gospel; they said it would never be abolished in Texas, but we've seen changes," said Cobb, who believes state-sanctioned killing will be abolished by 2025. "I think that's a reasonable goal."

This year's march, held Saturday, Oct. 19, featured speeches at the Capitol by exonerated death row inmates and abolition advocates. Travis County District Attorney candidate José Garza pledged that if elected, he'd refuse to seek the death penalty. Sandra Reed, mother of Rodney Reed (who's facing a Nov. 20 execution date), declared her son innocent and said he isn't the only innocent man the state has sought to kill over the years.

While Cobb and others see changes on the horizon, the families of death row inmates need something to happen now. Many of them set up tables under the trees before the march to network on behalf of their loved ones. Later, as the speakers delivered their remarks, family members and advocates stood behind them holding signs for Jeff Wood, Juan Balderas, Humberto Garza, and Ruben Gutierrez.

Gutierrez was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of Brownsville trailer park operator Escolastica Harrison. The 85-year-old Harrison, who distrusted banks, had stashed $600,000 in suitcases inside her trailer home. Gutierrez was convicted of hatching a robbery that ended with Harrison's face crushed and her body punctured in 13 places by screwdrivers.

Gutierrez had been scheduled to die on October 30. But his execution was delayed on Tuesday after his attorney, Shawn Nolan, brought clerical errors in Gutierrez's execution warrant to the attention of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The court ruled that the warrant was invalid since some copies didn't have the proper seal, hadn't been sent on time, and specified that Gutierrez was to be executed at both 6am and 6pm.

Nolan also has an appeal before the TCCA asking them to order DNA testing on fingernail scrapings and bloodstains from the scene of the murder. Gutierrez has fought for this testing for years, but the courts have never allowed it. Now, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz says he will wait for the TCCA's response to Nolan's appeal before requesting another execution date, which means Gutierrez has at least another 90 days to live.

DNA testing was a common topic at the march, as was Rodney Reed, whose case has been among the most closely watched for years. In 1998, Reed was convicted of murdering Stacey Stites in Bastrop at a trial marred by investigative bungling, prosecutorial misconduct, flawed forensics, and racial bias. His execution date is looming, but each week brings new developments in his case. Three weeks ago, a pair of new witnesses swore out affidavits that swung suspicion back toward Jimmy Fennell, Stites' fiancé at the time of her murder and the only other suspect in the case. The week following, Reed was declared innocent on the Dr. Phil show; Sister Helen Prejean urged her followers to call and write Gov. Greg Abbott; and this week, Kim Kardashian West tweeted her support. Bryce Benjet, Reed's lawyer, has asked Abbott to grant Reed a 30-day reprieve from execution and order the Board of Pardons and Paroles to investigate whether his sentence should be commuted given the mounting evidence of his innocence.

Sandra Reed gave the closing remarks. Speaking in a measured cadence, she said many innocent men are sitting in jails around the country and condemned the corrupt police, prosecutors, and judges who embody the flawed system. "There have been many wrongful deaths, long before now," she said, "and there will be many afterwards if we don't abolish the death penalty."

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The Chronicle has covered Rodney Reed’s case for nearly 20 years. For more, visit our Rodney Reed archive.

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