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Arkansas Executed Ledell Lee. Posthumous Testing Will Most Likely Prove He Was Innocent, Lawsuit Says

Lee’s family wants officials in Jacksonville, Arkansas, to turn over evidence that was used to convict and sentence him to death. The family says that evidence could posthumously exonerate him.

Ledell LeeCourtesy of the Innocence Project

The state of Arkansas most likely executed an innocent man in 2017, according to a complaint filed today by his sister. Patricia Young is seeking forensics testing on evidence that was used to convict her brother, Ledell Lee, and sentence him to death. She is requesting that officials in Jacksonville, Arkansas, turn over that evidence, which she says will exonerate him. 

Lee, who in 1995 was convicted of the 1993 murder of his neighbor, Debra Reese, maintained his innocence until his death. Though no physical evidence connected him to the crime and alibi witnesses testified that Lee could not have killed Reese, Arkansas executed him on April 20, 2017. His was the first of four executions the state carried out in a week as it scrambled to use its lethal injection drugs before their approaching expiration date. 

“I believe that the [test] results will show that my brother was executed for no reason,” Young told The Appeal. “We just want to clear his name and we don’t want his name to go in vain.”

During the more than two years since Arkansas executed Lee, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Innocence Project, Arkansas attorney John Tull, and a team of attorneys from the law firm Hogan Lovells continued to investigate his case and found what they say is “deeply troubling” and “powerful” evidence suggesting that Lee was innocent. This includes statements from forensics experts who have reviewed the evidence and found that the opinions testified to during trial were flawed and overstated. None of these claims were investigated before, however, due to the poor representation Lee was provided with in the nearly a quarter century between being charged and executed, says today’s complaint. 

Under Arkansas law, law enforcement is required to permanently retain all evidence in cases that result in convictions for violent offenses. The evidence in Lee’s case, which qualifies as a public record, is in possession of the Jacksonville Police Department. 

Among the items in the box are five latent fingerprints lifted from the crime scene, a hair found in the bedroom where Reese was killed, and scrapings from underneath Reese’s fingernails, according to the filing. Young’s attorneys say they want to submit the hair, scrapings, and six other items for DNA testing, along with the fingerprints for analysis. All of these items have been recently inspected and ruled to be suitable for testing, says the complaint. Once analyzed, the results would be entered into databases. Young’s attorneys hope they would produce a match that could help them determine who killed Reese.

The forensics testing that Young is requesting for those items was not available at the time of Lee’s trial, nor requested by his appellate attorneys until the ACLU and the Innocence Project got involved the month before his execution. At that time, a federal judge ruled that Lee had “simply delayed too long.” 

“It is in the public interest—and indeed the state of Arkansas’ best interest—to release these public records, which may reveal the innocence of a man executed by the state,” reads today’s complaint, filed at the Pulaski County Circuit Court. “If Mr. Lee is innocent, the release of these records may also reveal that a person other than Ledell Lee murdered Debra Reese in 1993, and permit the apprehension and prosecution of that person for her murder.”

Jacksonville City Attorney Stephanie Friedman told The Appeal that Arkansas law prohibits the release of the DNA and fingerprint evidence unless there is a court order that we will certainly comply with.

Police arrested Lee on Feb. 9, 1993, and charged him with capital murder less than two hours after Reese’s body was discovered. According to today’s complaint, authorities based their arrest on statements from two people—one who had taken the opioid pain medication Vicodin, and another who didn’t have her eyeglasses on and might have been on drugs—who pinpointed Lee as the killer. 

In Lee’s first trial, which took place in October 1994, his attorneys presented four witnesses who testified that they had either seen or knew where Lee was on the day of Reese’s murder. Reese, who was said to have been beaten with a tire thumper, was killed sometime between 10:50 a.m. and 1 p.m. (A forensics expert hired by Young’s attorneys concluded that she was also strangled and the killer stomped on Reese’s face, leaving a shoe mark that was inconsistent with the shoes worn by Lee on the day of the murder.)

Jurors were unable to reach a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial. Following the trial, one of Lee’s court-appointed attorneys told him that he thought the jury should have convicted him of Reese’s murder, according to the complaint. Lee asked for new representation but the judge refused, despite then-Arkansas Attorney General Winston Bryant arguing that Lee would be “unable to obtain a fair trial.”

In a compromise, the judge appointed another attorney to Lee’s defense team. During the second trial in October 1995, a so-called expert in shoe impressions testified that the soles of Lee’s shoes matched two footprints found near Reese’s body. That expert had taken one FBI course that touched on footwear comparison methods, according to today’s complaint. And though experts testified to  “inconclusive” results on other items tested, such as blood and hair, they said that the fingerprints and blood-stained jacket that were analyzed could not have belonged to Lee. Lee’s attorneys, however, did not call any of the alibi witnesses called in the previous trial and Lee was convicted of capital murder then sentenced to die. 

Lee’s representation did not improve in his appeals, according to the filing. His appointed attorney, Craig Lambert, who was overburdened with four other active death penalty cases and had just experienced the executions of three of his clients with two more to come, struggled with substance use, says the complaint. Lambert said he was unable to hire an effective investigator—which he partly attributed to inadequate funding—did not conduct important interviews, and could not competently represent Lee during his appellate hearings. “I recognized the investigation into Ledell’s innocence was not adequate and he deserved far better than the representation I was able to provide him back then,” wrote Lambert in a supporting affidavit filed with today’s complaint.

Since February 2018, Young has been working to win testing of the crime scene evidence. Her attorneys were permitted to inspect and take photographs of the evidence and in October 2018, requested that the items be submitted for testing. According to the complaint, Friedman told Young’s attorneys in October 2019 that she would not allow testing without a court order. 

Now that Young has filed a complaint, a judge is required to hold a hearing on her petition within seven days. 

Results on requests for post-execution DNA testing are mixed. In 2010, the Texas Observer and the Innocence Project won testing of a piece of hair found at a crime scene that prosecutors said belonged to Claude Jones, whom Texas executed in 2000. Testing confirmed that the hair, the only physical evidence connecting Jones to the crime, was not his, but because it matched the victim, not an alternate suspect, the results did not clear Jones. Virginia Governor Mark Warner announced in 2006 that new DNA testing confirmed that Roger Coleman was guilty of the crime the state had executed him for in 1992. In Tennessee, the daughter of Sedley Alley has been fighting to allow for DNA testing she says will show her father, who was executed in 2006, was innocent. A Memphis judge denied that petition in November, but her lawyers are planning to appeal the decision. 

Since the beginning of the modern death penalty era, 167 people sentenced to die have been exonerated. Of those, 20 were freed using DNA testing. 

Asked if the testing will show that Lee was innocent, Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project who joined Lee’s defense team in the month before his execution, told The Appeal, “I think there are very good reasons to think that. I think there are really serious doubts about whether he committed this crime.”

Young, in an interview with The Appeal, recounted a conversation she had with Lee before he was arrested. She was pregnant at the time, and Lee, who she said “always tried to help people,” was offering her advice on her pregnancy. Since then, Young and her family, including her aging parents, have struggled to explain how he ended up on death row. The testing, she said, offers a chance at long-awaited vindication. “We’re just really praying that we can get this DNA testing done to show and prove to the people of Arkansas that they wrongfully executed my brother. It’s like the prosecutor wanted her [Reese’s] family to have closure by murdering my brother so what kind of closure can we have for us?”