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True Crime: How DNA Evidence Suggests That An Executed Man May Have Been Innocent After All

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On April 20, 2017, Ledell Lee was put to death by the state of Arkansas via lethal injection. He’d been convicted of murdering Debra Reese, a 26-year-old in Jacksonville, Ark., back in 1993. Lee had always maintained his innocence, insisting in an interview with the BBC the day before his execution that his last words would be the same words he’d been saying for 22 years: “I am an innocent man.”

Lee was the first death row inmate to be executed in Arkansas after 12 years of no executions at all. His was one of eight planned executions intended to be carried out in an 11-day period in April, critics said because the state was rushing forward with executions before one of the primary drugs used in their lethal injection cocktail reached its expiration date of April 30. Three executions ended up being cancelled due to court rulings, but three others were put to death that month.

New DNA Evidence

Patricia Young, Lee’s sister, always believed her brother wasn’t the killer. She fought for years to prove his innocence and save his life. Now, new evidence has emerged to suggest the brother and sister may be right.

Attorneys working in conjunction with the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union say that recent DNA testing of the murder weapon reveals genetic material belonging to another man — not Ledell Lee. The murder weapon had not previously been tested.

Young was able to obtain the murder weapon, which included a wooden club and a white shirt covered in blood, along with a few other pieces of evidence, after filing a lawsuit against the city of Jacksonville, Ark. in January of 2020.

The DNA info has been added to the national criminal database, which is maintained by the F.B.I., in hopes of identifying the owner of the newly discovered DNA, but not soon enough to save Ledell Lee’s life. The Innocence Project and the A.C.L.U. had requested further DNA testing on multiple occasions, even up to the day before Lee’s execution in April of 2017. Lee had requested a stay of execution from the judge and was denied by a federal judge who said he had “simply delayed too long.

“No one should be executed when there is a possibility that person is innocent,” attorney Nina Morrison from the Innocence Project said after Lee was put to death.

It’s Too Late For Ledell Lee — But What Now?

The new evidence, according to Morrison, is inconclusive but still significant. The statement released early this May from the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union said that genetic material and fingerprints were found on the crime scene evidence, neither of which could be identified but did not belong to Ledell Lee. Experts were able to determine that the DNA from the murder weapon and the shirt did belong to the same man.

“While the results obtained 29 years after the evidence was collected proved to be incomplete and partial, it is notable that there are now new DNA profiles that were not available during the trial and post-conviction proceedings in Mr. Lee’s case,” Morrison said in a separate statement. “We are hopeful that one or more of these forensic law enforcement databases will generate additional information in the future.”

Despite the new evidence pointing to a perpetrator who wasn’t Lee, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson continues to defend the execution. “It’s my duty to carry out the law,” he said at a news conference on May 4. “The fact is that the jury found him guilty based upon the information that they had.” He said the new DNA evidence was “inconclusive.”

So far, the new DNA profile that was uploaded to the national criminal database hasn’t generated any “hits.” But that only means that the man in question has not been entered into the national database based on an arrest for or conviction of a violent crime.

Other Problems With Lee’s Case

The Innocence Project maintains that no physical evidence in the case against him conclusively connected him to the murder of Debra Reese. The group also details a series of other horrible issues regarding the mishandling of Lee’s case, from a drunk, unprepared lawyer to unreliable witnesses to debunked “science” attempting to match Lee’s hair to hairs found at the crime scene. Fingerprints found in relevant areas of the crime scene did not match Lee’s fingerprints. Lee’s first trial ended in a hung jury, partially due to the credible testimony of alibi witnesses that suggested Lee couldn’t have committed the murder. Unbelievably, Lee’s defense did not call alibi witnesses for the second trial — the one that sentenced Ledell Lee to death.

After his arrest for murdering Reese in 1993, Lee was linked via DNA to four other violent crimes, including three rapes and a homicide. The prosecutor on Lee’s case, now a judge, said at the time of his execution, “I think what makes Ledell Lee particularly deserving — and no other penalty but the death penalty would be proportional to the crimes that he has committed — would be this pattern of being a serial rapist and a killer.”

Lee’s sister remains hopeful that the new DNA evidence will eventually yield more information.