By Kelly Xiao Luo and Koda Slingluff
ARKANSAS– On April 20, 2017, Ledell Lee was executed for the murder of his neighbor, Debra Reese. But now, new forensic evidence casts doubt on Lee’s conviction.
Debra Reese died from strangulation and from being beaten by a baseball bat-like object in her home back in 1993. Aside from two specks of blood on Lee’s shoes and hair matching his ethnicity, there was very little tying Lee to the crime.
As of April 30, 2021, the ACLU and Innocence Project have released evidence that Lee may have been innocent all along. The newly analyzed murder weapon and blood-soaked shirt show DNA from an unidentified male, not Lee.
Lee was put to death during Arkansas’ 11-day rush to executions before the state’s lethal injection drugs expired in 2017. The state’s supreme court had just denied his motion for stay, with the dissenting justice stating that, the previous day, death row inmate Stacey Johnson was granted a stay for an “identical request.”
Justice Josephine Hart continued by saying “the court’s error in denying the motion for stay will not be capable of correction.”
During Lee’s trial in 1995, the DNA testing techniques were inadequate in determining whether the evidence from the murder scene incriminated Lee. He was unable to prove his claim of innocence, although he insisted throughout the trial that he was innocent.
Also, Lee’s attorney was grappling with substance abuse and even admitted to being intoxicated during one of his hearings.
As was known from the beginning of the case, there were no fingerprints matching Lee to the scene. The two specks of blood on his shoes were the only blood present on his person.
Because of such limited evidence, “the blood and hair evidence were an essential part of the State’s case identifying the defendant as the perpetrator of the murder.”
In the trial, the state’s expert testified to confirm that there was blood on his shoes but could not say whose blood it was. Likewise, the hair on the scene was identified as “intact Negroid head hair,” but was not confirmed to belong to Lee.
The days leading up to Lee’s execution were packed with denied motions and appeals.
Lee filed a lawsuit for DNA testing three days prior to execution, which was denied. He appealed the denial and filed a motion with the state supreme court, which was denied the day of his execution. The court granted a temporary stay to Lee that night—until 11:25 p.m., when the stay was denied and vacated.
Meanwhile, Lee had also filed a motion to stay in order to give time to review the DNA evidence. This was denied on April 20. He then filed for habeas relief, arguing unlawful judicial action. Yet again, he was denied.
In one final effort, Lee filed a writ of error coram nobis which would argue that he was ineligible for execution due to mental disability. He was denied and put to death.
One of his motions for relief surmised the dizzying experience with the justice system, calling it a “stunning stream of incompetent, conflicted, and intoxicated counsel” and a “breakdown in [prosecution] at every stage.”
Even after Lee’s death, his family sought to prove his innocence, with the help of the ACLU and the Innocence Project. They filed for another Freedom of Information Act lawsuit which was previously denied by the prosecutors before Lee’s execution. The request was unanimously granted by the city council of Jacksonville in Arkansas.
As Jacksonville Mayor Bob Johnson stated, “If a gentleman was put to death and shouldn’t have been, that means there’s a murderer loose somewhere in Jacksonville or Arkansas or [the U.S.] and they need to be brought to justice.”
With the request granted, the new tests found that the DNA on the blood-soaked shirt and murder weapon did not match Lee’s nor did it match anyone in the nationwide DNA databases, including the fingerprints.
They also tested the hair from the crime scene in which five of the strands did not match Lee while the sixth strand contained a “mitochondrial DNA profile” that did not exclude Lee as a potential match but may also be “shared by thousands of individuals in a given population” as stated by the Innocence Project. His shoes also yielded negative results.
The concluding result indicated that all the tests and analysis of Lee’s clothing came back negative for the presence of blood from the victim.
The new DNA evidence presented by the ACLU and the Innocence Project helped in reclaiming Ledell Lee’s innocence for him and his family—an opportunity to retest exculpatory DNA evidence that many death-row prisoners were denied.
Koda is a junior at UC Berkeley, majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Rhetoric. He is from Ventura, CA.
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