Four years after a man’s execution, lawyers say DNA from the murder weapon points to someone else

Ledell Lee was executed on April 20, 2017. (Arkansas Department of Corrections/AP)

Ledell Lee was executed for murder in a flurry of lethal injections that divided the Supreme Court and proceeded despite lawyers’ calls for DNA testing.

“No one should be executed when there is a possibility that person is innocent,” attorney Nina Morrison said in April 2017, just after Lee — convicted in the 1990s — became the first person put to death in Arkansas in more than a decade. The state drew national scrutiny for moving aggressively through capital cases before one of its drugs used in executions expired.

Four years later, attorneys say genetic material from the murder weapon in Lee’s case points to someone else.

New testing found DNA from an unknown man on the handle of the bloody club apparently used to bludgeon Debra Reese to death, according to lawyers who sued the city of Jacksonville, Ark., to have old evidence analyzed. The Innocence Project, the American Civil Liberties Union and Lee’s family sought the testing last year in an unusual effort to exonerate someone with DNA testing even after the person’s execution.

The results obtained nearly three decades after the crime “proved to be incomplete and partial,” acknowledged Morrison, a lawyer with the Innocence Project. But she framed the discovery as significant and leaving the door open for more findings down the road in a case that relied largely on eyewitness testimony.

“We are glad there is new evidence in the national DNA database and remain hopeful that there will be further information uncovered in the future,” Patricia Young, Lee’s sister, said in a statement.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) defended Lee’s execution at a news conferenceTuesday, saying that the new evidence is “inconclusive” and noting that “the jury found him guilty based upon the information that they had.”

“Whenever you make tough decisions, whenever you have to carry out the decision of a jury, you realize that it’s been reviewed by the Supreme Court at every level,” said Hutchinson, who scheduled Lee’s among a wave of executions in 2017. “They affirm the convictions, and it’s my duty to carry out the law.”

In a statement, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R) dismissed criticisms of the case against Lee.

“The courts consistently rejected Ledell Lee’s frivolous claims because the evidence demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that he murdered Debra Reese by beating her to death inside her home with a tire thumper,” Rutledge said, adding that she hopes the victim’s family got closure after Lee’s execution.

Ledell Lee maintained his innocence until his execution in 2017. (The Innocence Project)

The Washington Post could not reach the lead prosecutor on Lee’s case on Tuesday. Now a judge, she has expressed confidence that authorities took a serial predator off the streets, and Lee was convicted of two rapes in the early ’90s after his arrest for the Reese murder.

“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,” the prosecutor, Holly Lodge Meyer, previously told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

After his arrest in the 1993 killing of Reese, authorities linked Lee to four other crimes with DNA — three sexual assaults and one homicide, according to the Democrat-Gazette, though the homicide and one of the assault cases were dropped.

In Reese’s case, one neighbor testified that he saw Lee enter and leave the victim’s home the day of the killing, according to the Democrat-Gazette. Another said that Lee came to his door once asking for tools — what prosecutors suggested was Lee’s tactic for seeking out women home alone. Authorities said a shoe print and human blood found in Lee’s sneakers also bolstered their case.

Yet lawyers advocating for Lee said a review uncovered flaws in the evidence,including a “shocking[ly]” biased photo lineup. Lee’s appellate attorney acknowledged in an affidavit that he had struggled with substance abuse and didn’t have the resources to mount a proper defense. Now, there is also the new testing.

No match was found for the unknown man’s genetic profile in a national database of DNA, but it will now be automatically compared against any new additions, according to lawyers with the Innocence Project, the ACLU and two law firms that represent Lee’s sister. DNA that appears to be from the same person was also discovered on a bloody white shirt wrapped around the weapon, they said.

Testing could not rule out Lee as the possible source of one of multiple hairs and hair fragments recovered from the scene, they added, but the kind of mitochondrial DNA profiles analyzed “may be shared by thousands of individuals in a given population.”

A lawyer for Jacksonville — which also received the new reports, according to the lawyers who sued the city — did not immediately respond Tuesday evening to a request for comment.

Lee died maintaining his innocence, and attorneys appealed his case right up to his lethal injection. The Supreme Court eventually cleared the way to execute Lee and others on Arkansas’ death row — splitting 5 to 4 at one point, with the court’s liberal justices saying the state should not proceed.

“I have previously noted the arbitrariness with which executions are carried out in this country,” wrote Justice Stephen G. Breyer. “And I have pointed out how the arbitrary nature of the death penalty system, as presently administered, runs contrary to the very purpose of a ‘rule of law.’ ”

Lee died just before midnight, after making some last calls and sharing up his possessions, a lawyer said, among them chips that he gave to a fellow prisoner. That man’s execution had just been called off, and he remains on death row.

Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.

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