New DNA evidence reveals wrongful execution 4 years later

'My dying words will always be, as it has been, ‘I am an innocent man,’ said Ledell Lee a day before in April 20, 2017 execution

Four years after the execution of Ledell Lee, convicted of strangling and fatally bludgeoning 26-year-old Debra Reese in Jacksonville, Arkansas in 1993, DNA testing has revealed that the genetic material on the murder weapon and other pieces of evidence belongs to another man, according to The New York Times.

“My dying words will always be, as it has been, ‘I am an innocent man,’” Lee told the BBC in an interview published the day before his April 20, 2017 death by lethal injection.

Ledell Lee (Benjamin Krain/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, via Associated Press)

Thanks to lawyers associated with the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union, the Times reports the new genetic profile has been uploaded to a national criminal database in an attempt to trace the identity of the unknown killer.

Patricia Young, Lee’s sister, joined The Innocence Project and the ACLU in pushing for additional DNA testing various times leading to her brother’s execution, however, the request for a stay of execution was denied by a federal judge who believed Lee had “simply delayed too long,” according to a complaint filed by Young.

“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,” Young said in a statement last week. 

As reported by the Times, Lee’s execution had been Arkansas’ first in more than a decade, and the state was accused of rushing the deaths of Lee and other prisoners that April, before its supply of a lethal injection drug expired.

Patricia Young, left, and Shantel Tidwell, her sister (Staton Breidenthal/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, via Associated Press)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, believing the newly discovered DNA evidence to be “inconclusive,” defended Lee’s execution at a news conference on Tuesday, stating, “It’s my duty to carry out the law” and “the fact is that the jury found him guilty based upon the information that they had.”

“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 or post-conviction proceedings in Mr. Lee’s case,” said Nina Morrison, senior litigation counsel at the Innocence Project, in a statement reported by The Washington Post on Tuesday.

Although the DNA of the man who murdered Reese does not match any of the profiles already in the database, taken from people who were convicted or arrested on suspicion of violent crimes, “the DNA profile will now remain in the database and will be automatically compared to all new profiles from convicted persons, arrestees or unsolved crimes that are entered in the future,” according to a joint statement by the lawyers of the ACLU, the Innocence Project and Ms. Young, reported by the Times.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas (Andrew Demillo/Associated Press)

The Times further notes that Lee’s second trial began on Oct. 10, 1995, seven days after O.J. Simpson had been acquitted of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

“Mr. Lee, a Black man charged with the vicious beating and murder of a white woman in her home, was tried under the shadow of the O.J. Simpson prosecution and trial,” argued Young in her January lawsuit. “The Simpson verdict shocked and angered many white Americans and polarized the nation along racial lines. It’s difficult to imagine that any jury could be truly objective in considering the evidence against Mr. Lee at that particular moment in time.”

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