The weight of fame: Rodney Reed’s case calls the role of celebrities in the criminal justice system into question

Can Kim Kardashian make the difference in a case with her fame? Your Friday long read from The Marshall Project

We go to The Marshall Project for this week’s long read, “Everyone on Death Row Gets a Lawyer. Not Everyone Gets a Kim Kardashian,” by Keri Blakinger and Maurice Chammah. We include key excerpts to convince you it’s worth your time.

The conversation about the benefits of celebrity influence and the role of the death penalty in American society is still evolving

“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 Stiles, 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 from political pressures.”


“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 U.S. since 1977, only a small fraction have received such high-profile attention.”

“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,” [Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project said].

Bottom Line

“[There is] 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 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.”

“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.”

“‘I am not convinced that’s it’s a good thing systemwide,” McNeal [Reed’s lawyer] said, “but it’s a damn good thing for Rodney Reed.’”

Read the whole article here.

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