New DNA Test Casts Doubt on Guilty Verdict and Execution of Black Man in 2017
Ledell Lee maintained his innocence until his execution in 2017. (The Innocence Project)

Ledell Lee was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of Debra Reese. Four years ago, in 2017, he was one of four inmates executed by the state of Arkansas before it had exhausted its supply of lethal injection chemicals. The 51-year-old maintained his innocence up to the day he was executed, according to THV11. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Innocence Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lee’s sister, Patricia Young, which resulted in the city of Jacksonville, AR ruling that new tests could be run on the evidence in his case.

Shortly after testing, both parties released summaries of the testing of evidence, which revealed genetic material from a male other than Lee was upon the murder weapon used to murder Debra Reese. The wooden club and bloody shirt that was wrapped around it did not match any in a national database. The groups also said that five fingerprints that had been discovered at the crime scene in 1993 were run but remain unidentified.

“While the results obtained twenty-nine 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,” Nina Morrison, Senior Litigation Counsel at the Innocence Project, said in a statement.

Morrison said the groups hoped that the databases would generate additional information in the future. “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. 

During a news conference Tuesday, May 4, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) defended Lee’s execution, saying that the new evidence is “inconclusive” and “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. They affirm the convictions, and it’s my duty to carry out the law.”

Lee died maintaining his innocence. The US Supreme Court facilitated the execution and others on Arkansas’ death row. In a decision that was split 5 to 4, the court’s liberal justices said 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.’”

Unfortunately, it looks like there might be a shadow of a doubt.