The Jacksonville City Council voted Friday to allow laboratory testing of DNA evidence collected at the scene of a homicide that led to the execution of Ledell Lee in 2017.
The vote enables the city to settle a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and other advocacy groups seeking to force local authorities in Jacksonville to release DNA evidence and fingerprints found at the scene of the crime (the fingerprints do not match Lee’s). The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Lee’s sister, argues that new analysis by forensic experts supports Lee’s consistent claim of innocence — and that evidence from the crime scene should be tested using vastly improved modern technologies, and run through national databases for the first time.
Support the Arkansas Blog with a subscription
We can't resist without our readers!
The lawsuit was later amended to offer the city the option of having the evidence tested at a lab rather than turning it over. The city council, on recommendation from the city attorney, unanimously agreed.
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.
“This lawsuit was always about finding the truth, and we’re glad the Jacksonville City Council has decided to do the right thing and allow this evidence to be tested,” said Holly Dickson, interim executive director and legal director of the ACLU of Arkansas, in a prepared statement. “While nothing can undo the injustice of Ledell Lee’s execution, tonight’s vote is a positive and long-overdue step that could well identify the real perpetrator of the crime. We thank Jacksonville city leaders for standing on the side of openness and hope to receive the court’s approval. Arkansans deserve the truth.”
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).
Lee maintained his innocence from the day he was arrested until the day he was executed. “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.
Here’s more on Lee and his case from the Innocence Project.
“We are grateful that the Jacksonville City Council voted to do this testing,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, in a prepared statement. “This DNA and fingerprint evidence quite possibly holds the key to who killed Debra Reese in 1993. It should have been tested before Ledell was executed. By voting to turn over the evidence for testing now, the Council members have shown that they are earnest in their pursuit of the truth and justice for the citizens of their city. We thank them for their courage.”
And a statement from Innocence Project Senior Litigation Counsel Nina Morrison:
We are grateful that the City of Jacksonville has agreed to release the evidence needed to proceed with critical DNA and fingerprint analysis in the case of Ledell Lee. The search to uncover the truth about Debra Reese’s murder is in the interest of justice for all parties and for the public at large. We look forward to working with the City to conduct this new testing as soon as possible.
According to the ACLU, to date, 367 innocent people have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing similar to what will now be tested.