In a hearing this afternoon before Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright, attorneys for death row inmate Ledell Lee argued that they should be allowed to locate crime scene evidence collected in 1993, including a single hair and a Converse shoe with a pinhead-sized spot of human blood on it, for modern DNA testing. They hope testing can prove that the African-American hair found at the crime scene belongs to someone other than Lee, and that the speck of blood found on Lee’s shoe does not belong to the victim in the case.
UPDATE: Wright denied the petition.
Lee was sentenced to death for the Feb. 9, 1993 murder of Debra Reese, 26, who was beaten to death in the bedroom of her home in Jacksonville. Investigators found that she was strangled and struck at least 36 times with a “tire thumper,” a club used by truckers to check tire pressure. Her husband, a truck driver, had given her the tire thumper for protection while he was on the road. Lee has maintained he is innocent of the crime.
As reported in the Jacksonville’s Arkansas Leader newspaper, Lee was also convicted of raping two other Jacksonville women, and was put on trail in the rape and murder of Christine Lewis, a 22-year-old mother, also from Jacksonville, who was abducted from her home in Nov. 1989 before being raped and strangled. Her body was left in an abandoned house. Lee’s trial in the Lewis case ended in a hung jury.
During the hearing, Lee’s attorney Lee Short made the case that prior counsel in the Reese case failed Lee by not insisting on modern DNA testing of the items prior to now. He said that Lee had reached out to the Innocence Project in 1996, asking for them to take up his case, but was told they didn’t have the staff or funding. Pulaski County Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Johnson, arguing for the state, said that while there have been advancements in DNA testing techniques and technologies, attorneys for Lee had presented no evidence to the court proving those advancements.
Short said that at the time of Lee’s original trial, the science of hair analysis was mostly about comparison. “Basically what happened at the trial is this,” Lee said. “I’ve got a hair. I’ve got another hair. I’m going to show you what the differences are.” Lee said that with significant scientific advancements since 1993, investigators can now determine much more from hair analysis, especially if the hair involved has a root. Johnson said there’s no way of knowing if the hair has a root. Short claimed there was testimony to the effect that there was a hair root, but couldn’t find the passage while searching the transcript at today’s hearing. As for the speck of blood found on Lee’s Converse tennis shoe — which was determined destroyed during testing to prove it was human blood — Short said modern techniques could potentially recover a sample and prove it was either Lee’s blood or belonged to someone other than Debra Reese.
Judge Wright noted that there have been many instances where Mr. Lee ‘s case had come before the courts, but he hadn’t made the argument that the material should be tested with modern technologies and techniques. Wright said that if actual innocence was the basis of a claim by Lee, that could have been raised “earlier than the eve of execution.” Short said that Lee has always maintained his innocence in the case, adding that without undertaking modern DNA testing, Lee “was not a good candidate for an actual innocence claim.” If the court allows the testing, Short said, he believes the results will make Lee a very good candidate for an innocence claim. Johnson said that the purpose of the hearing is “not to ask ‘what if?'” adding that Short had “besmirched” the character of previous counsel who represented Lee. Short replied that he would “absolutely” besmirch the character of Lee’s previous counsel.
Short said that his investigations have shown that the evidence in the case is supposed to be in the custody of the Jacksonville Police Department, which is required to preserve the evidence. He asked the court to order the Jacksonville PD to either produce those items for testing or admit that they have been discarded. Short said attorneys for Lee are not asking for a new trial, only that the evidence be made available for testing.
Short said that Lee’s case was based on circumstantial evidence and eyewitness testimony from witnesses he painted as flawed, including one witness who was on Vicodin at the time he claimed he saw Lee leaving Reese’s home, and another who told investigators she was of the Rastafarian religion and smoked marijuana daily. All eyewitnesses in the case, Short said, made “cross-racial identification” of Lee, which has been found to be flawed in other cases. Short also said that even though the crime scene was “extremely bloody,” when Lee was arrested three hours after the murder, Lee was only found with a single speck of blood on his shoe. Short said the strongest evidence by the state was a Converse shoe imprint left at the crime scene. If Lee had changed out of his bloody clothes, Short asked, why didn’t he change his shoes too?
Johnson countered that even if modern testing found that the hair discovered at the crime scene belonged to a different African-American man, and that the blood on the shoe belonged to someone other than Debra Reese, neither would prove Lee’s innocence or create an alibi for him the night of the crime. Short argued that if either of those outcomes turned out to be true, it would “substantially advance” Lee’s case for innocence. Short cited the West Memphis 3 case, in which later DNA testing found that none of the DNA evidence discovered at the crime scene matched Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley or Jason Baldwin. Short said that in that case, Johnson could have made the same argument as he did in Lee’s case. The discovery that DNA evidence collected at the crime scene didn’t match any of the West Memphis 3 was instrumental to securing their release.
Judge Wright said he would have a ruling on the issue “by the close of business today.”