The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups today filed a lawsuit on behalf of Patricia Young, the sister of Ledell Lee, seeking the release of crime scene materials that they argue could exonerate Lee.
Lee was convicted of the brutal 1993 slaying of Debra Reese, a 26-year-old Jacksonville woman who was strangled and beaten at her home in Jacksonville, and sentenced to death in 1995. He was executed by the state of Arkansas in April 2017, one of eight scheduled over the course of eleven days because of the state’s expiring supply of execution drugs (four actually took place, while the other were stayed by legal challenges).
“My dying words will always be, as it has been: ‘I am an innocent man,” Lee told the BBC in an interview the day before he was executed.
New analysis by forensic experts supports Lee’s claim of innocence, the ACLU argues in its lawsuit, filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court.
The ACLU’s lawsuit asks that the court require local authorities in Jacksonville to release DNA and fingerprints found at the scene of the crime (the fingerprints do not match Lee’s). The evidence, which the ACLU argues likely belongs to Reese’s killer, includes hairs from the bedroom where the murder occurred, scrapings from under Reese’s fingernails, and five fingerprints from the murder scene.
The ACLU and Lee’s family hope to test them using technologies that have vastly improved since Lee’s trial, and run them through national databases for the first time.
From the ACLU’s press release:
When the Innocence Project and the ACLU were brought in to work on his case less than two weeks before his execution, they immediately identified serious flaws in the evidence used to convict him. They also identified DNA evidence that likely belonged to the killer and had never been tested with modern technology. The courts refused to hear any new evidence or allow DNA testing before executing Lee.
“Since Ledell’s execution, we have discovered a wealth of new evidence supporting his claim of innocence,” said Nina Morrison, senior litigation counsel at the Innocence Project, another group working on the lawsuit in the press release. “All of this evidence should have been presented to the courts while Ledell was still alive, but it wasn’t because he couldn’t afford a quality defense. We know that 167 people have been exonerated from death row for crimes they did not commit, many after losing decades of their life behind bars. The lack of thoroughness in Ledell’s investigation helps explain how that happens, and we hope the Court will allow us to finally uncover the truth.”
The ACLU and the Innocence Project have worked on re-investigating the case in the wake of Lee’s execution. Among the affidavits offering new forensic analysis in today’s lawsuit, affidavits from:
- Dr. Michael Baden, arguably the nation’s leading forensic pathologist, finding that the State fundamentally misinterpreted important evidence about Debra Reese’s injuries and cause of death. Critically, a scrape on her face did not come from the rug she was found on, as prosecutors argued, but rather a shoe. Dr. Baden has compared the soles of the shoes Lee was wearing that day and concludes that they are “incompatible with the injury pattern to Ms. Reese’s face.”
- Footwear examination expert Alicia Wilcox found serious flaws in the State’s claim at trial that two partial shoe prints from the crime scene were the “exact same size” as Lee’s shoes. Dr. Wilcox’s findings seriously undermine the shoe print testimony that prosecutors referred to as a “slam dunk” at trial.
- Dr. Jennifer Dysart, a nationally known expert in eyewitness misidentification, concluded that the eyewitnesses who identified Lee were shown a photo lineup that was “shockling[ly]” biased against him, irrevocably tainting their identifications.
“My family has been unable to rest for the last two and a half years, knowing that my brother was murdered by the state of Arkansas for a crime we believe he did not commit,” Patricia Young said in the press release. “What happened to Debra Reese is horrible, and we keep her family in our prayers. But I was with Ledell the day this murder happened, and I do not see how he could have done this. If Ledell is innocent, then the person who did this has never been caught. All we want is to finally learn the truth.”
Today’s lawsuit also includes an affidavit from Lee’s appellate attorney, Craig Lambert, who admits that he struggled with substance abuse and addiction while representing Lee and did not have the resources to properly handle his case. “I recognize 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,” Lambert states in the affidavit.
Here’s a good story on Lee’s case and today’s lawsuit in the Guardian.
According to the ACLU, to date, 367 innocent people have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing similar to what today’s lawsuit requests.