On April 20, 2017, after 24 years in prison, Ledell Lee was executed for the 1993 murder of Debra Reese in Jacksonville, Arkansas. Lee always maintained his innocence — from the day he was arrested to the day he was executed. In the weeks before his execution, the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took on Lee’s case and filed for an emergency stay of execution so that DNA testing could be done, which could have proven Lee’s innocence. But the motion was denied and Lee was executed.
In the years since Lee’s execution, the Innocence Project and the ACLU have continued to investigate his case, collecting new evidence and analyzing existing evidence that was overlooked when Lee was alive. But local officials have refused to allow DNA testing, and will not run the fingerprints from the crime scene through the national database.
That’s why the Innocence Project, the ACLU, the ACLU of Arkansas, the law firm Hogan Lovells US LLP, and Little Rock attorney John Tull filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on behalf of Lee’s sister, Patricia Young. And on Jan. 31, the city of Jacksonville agreed to conduct testing of the DNA and fingerprint evidence in Lee’s case.
Here’s what you need to know about Lee’s case and why we’re taking action to seek the truth:
- No physical evidence directly connected Lee to Reese’s murder.
- At Lee’s trial, the prosecution’s own experts admitted that the results of several of its forensic tests were ultimately “inconclusive,” yet the prosecution inflated the significance of its test results, leading to Lee’s conviction. Today, due to scientific advancements, DNA and fingerprint testing can tell us far more than it could in the ‘90s.
- During Lee’s trial, the state argued that hairs from the crime scene were “microscopically consistent” with Lee’s hair based on a visual examination conducted by its expert — but this forensic method has since been discredited. Only DNA testing can scientifically determine the actual source of hair.
- DNA evidence from the crime scene belonging to the killer has never been tested with modern technology. Modern DNA testing can now identify the actual source of the hair, scrapings from under Reese’s fingernails, and other key evidence.
- Though DNA testing could have helped prove Lee’s innocence and identify the actual perpetrator of the crime at no cost to the state, the court refused to hear any new evidence or allow DNA testing before executing Lee, arguing that the request came too late.
- The Innocence Project and the ACLU began to work on Lee’s case after his execution date was set. With less than two weeks to investigate before Lee’s scheduled execution, the organizations found serious flaws in the evidence used to convict him.
- Three leading forensic science experts — including forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, footwear examination expert Alicia Wilcox, and eyewitness misidentification expert Dr. Jennifer Dysart — say that the evidence used to convict Lee at trial was seriously flawed. Their findings provide strong reason to believe Lee is innocent.
- Fingerprints from key areas of the crime scene were determined not to be Ledell Lee’s and to this day have never been identified. None of Lee’s lawyers ever had the crime scene fingerprints independently examined before his execution. It turns out that there are at least five fingerprints eligible to be searched in the national Automated Fingerprint Identification System database — which could identify the source in a matter of hours.
- Lee’s post-conviction lawyer was living with a substance use disorder and was admittedly intoxicated during several of Lee’s hearings, and struggled to present a defense and to adequately introduce and argue evidence of Lee’s innocence. Due to his overwhelming workload, his lawyer attempted to withdraw from Lee’s case but was denied. He also requested support, repeatedly moving to have co-counsel appointed, but was again denied. He supports our continued investigation into Lee’s case and has urged the courts to allow the testing.
- Lee had two trials – the first resulted in a hung jury, after the jury heard from numerous alibi witnesses whose testimony suggested he could not have committed the crime. However, at his second trial, the defense inexplicably called no alibi witnesses. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
- Lee was one of eight people whose execution was scheduled for the same 11-day period because Arkansas’ supply of lethal injection drugs was about to expire. Four of those people received stays of execution — Lee was not one of them.
It is estimated that 4% of defendants sentenced to death are wrongfully convicted — over the last 44 years, 167 innocent people have been exonerated from death row. More than 20 of those people were freed using DNA testing similar to that being requested on Lee’s behalf today.
Though it is too late for DNA and fingerprint testing of the crime scene evidence to save Lee’s life, it can reveal whether or not Arkansas executed an innocent man. And, if it turns out that Lee was innocent, the same testing could uncover the identity of Reese’s actual killer, and bring justice to both her family and the family of Ledell Lee.
Feb. 3: This article was updated to reflect recent developments in this case.