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Innocence Project Working to Prove Arkansas Executed Innocent Man

On January 23, 2020, the family of an Arkansas man who was executed three years earlier, filed a lawsuit to obtain evidence from the scene of the murder for which he was convicted, hoping to finally submit it for DNA testing.

“My family has been unable to rest…knowing that my brother was murdered by the state of Arkansas for a crime we believe he did not commit,” said Patricia Young, the surviving sister of the executed convict, Ledell Lee.

If she succeeds in clearing her dead brother’s name, his will be at least the 368th posthumous exoneration in the U.S., according to the Innocence Project.

Lee was put to death for the February 9, 1993, murder of Debra Reese in Jacksonville, Arkansas. Reese was found in her home, strangled, kicked in the face and bludgeoned to death with a small wooden bat called a “tire thumper,” which are used by truck drivers to beat their vehicle’s tires to make sure they are properly pressurized. Based on the accounts of two eyewitnesses, Lee was arrested about two hours after Reese’s body was discovered.

But at trial, Lee’s jury was presented with weaknesses in the eyewitnesses’ accounts: One was using Vicodin, a strong opioid drug, and the other was not only on drugs but also not wearing prescription eyeglasses. Evidence was also presented of a footprint, found next to Reese’s head, which did not match the shoes Lee wore the day of her murder. Four other witnesses also testified to his alibi, placing Lee at other locations during the entire two hour and 10-minute window – from 10:50 a.m. to 1 p.m. – established for Reese’s death by forensic analysis. The trial resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial was declared.

Lee was retried, but his new defense counsel did not put any alibi witnesses on the stand, resulting in his capital murder conviction and death sentence. Post-conviction counsel also missed opportunities to present exonerating evidence. The new lawsuit includes an affidavit from Lee’s appellate attorney, Craig Lambert, admitting he was battling substance abuse at the time.

“I recognize the investigation into Ledell’s innocence was not adequate and he deserved far better than the representation I was able to provide him back then,” Lambert said.

Two weeks before Lee’s scheduled execution, lawyers from the Innocence Project got involved in Lee’s case. Together with counsel from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), they identified evidentiary flaws, including DNA evidence that had never been tested.

But a federal judge declined to intervene, holding instead that Lee had “simply delayed too long.” Arkansas was also rushing through seven other executions before its supply of lethal drugs expired. [See PLN, Feb. 2018, p.24.] Lee was executed on April 20, 2017.

“What we see here is unfortunately too common in death penalty cases, especially when a white person has been killed and there is pressure to convict someone for their death,” said the director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, Cassandra Stubbs.

On Jan. 23, 2020, the ACLU, Innocence Project attorney John Tull and the law firm of Hogan Lovells filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lee’s family to have DNA and other forensic testing done on the state’s evidence in order to prove Lee’s innocence. They also presented three expert affidavits:

• Forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden said that a scrape on Reese’s face did not come from a rug, as prosecutors claimed, but from a shoe – and not Lee’s shoe, the sole of which is “incompatible with the injury pattern to Ms. Reese’s face.”

• The shoe print that prosecutors did present the jury as “slam dunk evidence” incriminating Lee was not the “exact same size” as his shoes, according to Dr. Alicia Wilcox, an expert in examining footwear.

• Eyewitness misidentification expert Dr. Jennifer Dysart said the photo lineup shown to the eyewitnesses who testified against Lee was “shockingly” biased against him.

“All of this evidence should have been presented to the courts while Ledell was still alive,” said the Innocence Project’s senior litigation counsel, Nina Morrison.

“What happened to Debra Reese is horrible,” Young said. “But I was with Ledell the day this murder happened, and I do not see how he could have done this. If Ledell is innocent, then the person who did this has never been caught.”

Jacksonville city attorney Stephanie Freeman has not yet launched a new search for another suspect in Reese’s murder. But she opposes the release of the evidence sought by the lawsuit, based on her interpretation of Arkansas evidence retention laws. If the release is granted by a court, though, she promised “we will certainly comply.” See: Patricia Young v. Jacksonville Police Department et al., Case No.60CV-20-639 (Pulaski County Circuit Court, 2020). 


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Related legal case

Patricia Young v. Jacksonville Police Department et al.