Ledell Lee, scheduled to be executed Thursday night, has asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to stay the execution to allow time to do new DNA evidence that attorneys say could prove his innocence. Attorneys from the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and the Innocence Project joined North Little Rock lawyer Lee Short in the appeal.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright denied Lee’s petition yesterday.
Holly Lodge Meyer, the prosecuting attorney who tried Lee’s capital case for the 1993 slaying of 26-year-old Debra Reese in her Jacksonville home, said she was surprised to hear of the involvement of the ACLU and the Innocence Project.
“This is the first I’ve ever heard of him claiming actual innocence, ” Lodge Meyer said. “It’s news to me.”
The current chief deputy prosecutor in Pulaski County, John Johnson, had similar remarks Tuesday, asking Wright to reject Lee’s request because the defendant has skipped numerous opportunities to seek the tests in the 22 years since he was convicted.
“He has waited until the eve of the end of his life to make this claim,” Johnson said.
Even if the testing showed what Lee claimed, those results would still not be enough to prove Lee was not the man who killed Reese, the prosecutor said. Police linked him to the killing through three witnesses who put him at either Reese’s home or in her neighborhood before she was killed.
The mother of one was killed in her Jacksonville home by an assailant who choked her and bludgeoned her 36 times with a tire tool her husband had given her to protect herself. Lee was arrested within an hour of her murder, shortly after he spent a $100 bill that police said appeared to be one of five her father had recently given her.
From an Innocence Project news release:
(Little Rock, AR – April 19, 2017) This morning, attorneys for Ledell Lee asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to stay his execution to allow time for DNA testing that could prove his innocence. Lee, who is represented by attorneys from the Innocence Project and the ACLU, is scheduled for execution on Thursday, April 20, 2017.
“Mr. Lee has consistently maintained his innocence, and yet the state is rushing to put him to death without giving him the opportunity to do the DNA testing that could prove who actually committed the crime,” said Nina Morrison, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “All we are asking is that the Arkansas Supreme Court issue a stay of execution so that Mr. Lee is given the opportunity to do the testing that could spare his life.”
Lee has always maintained his innocence of the 1993 murder and sexual assault of Debra Reese. Numerous unknown fingerprints were found at the crime scene, yet none were from Lee.
At trial, the prosecution claimed that two small spots of “human blood” on shoes recovered by the police from Lee were likely the victim’s blood. Yet despite the extremely bloody nature of the crime, no other blood was found anywhere on Lee’s shoes, or any of his clothing. Newly available DNA testing could prove whether the spots were in fact victim’s blood.
Attorneys are also seeking to test hairs of purported African-American origin that were recovered at the scene. At trial, the state argued that the hairs came from the perpetrator, after witnesses reported seeing a lone black male enter and exit the home of the victim, who was white. The state’s experts claimed that the hairs were “consistent” with Lee’s based on microscopic examination – a forensic method that has since been discredited.
DNA testing could prove not only if the hairs came from Lee, but a DNA profile could also be identified from the hairs that could help determine who really committed the crime – including comparing it to the DNA of millions of other convicted felons in the national DNA databank. DNA testing and databank searches were not available at Lee’s trial, but are standard law enforcement practice in 2017.
The other main evidence in the case was the testimony of three eyewitnesses who identified Lee as a man they saw in the area. The nation’s 349 DNA exonerations have proven that eyewitness identifications are unreliable. Eyewitness misidentification was a contributing factor in 71 percent of the 349 DNA exonerations, and 32 percent of the DNA exonerations involved multiple misidentifications.
The criminal justice system has completely failed Lee since he was arrested for the crime. Lee was tried by a judge who concealed that he was having an affair with the assistant prosecutor on the case, whom he later married. Lee’s first state post-conviction counsel introduced the evidence of the affair by calling the judge’s ex-wife, who testified about the affair after opposing the subpoena. Lee’s lawyer, however, was so intoxicated at the hearing that the prosecution asked for him to be drug tested after he slurred, stumbled, and made incoherent arguments.
Lee has fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, significant brain damage and significant intellectual disability – important defenses to the death penalty that his lawyers failed to litigate.
Lee won new proceedings because of the lawyer’s drunkenness, and his representation did not improve after that attorney was dismissed. His next lawyers failed to introduce evidence of the affair, giving up one of many of Lee’s important arguments, and never pursued his innocence or intellectual disability claims. Nor did they ever ask the court to order DNA testing.
Lee was just last week appointed new counsel from the ACLU, which asked the Innocence Project to assist in representing Lee for the purposes of seeking DNA testing. The Innocence Project has presented the Arkansas courts with an affidavit from a nationally recognized DNA expert explaining the scientific tests that could now exonerate Lee before his execution.