LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (CN) – Ledell Lee was pronounced dead 12 minutes after his April 20, 2017 execution began, making him the first Arkansas death-row inmate in 12 years to die by lethal injection for the 1993 murder of Debra Reese. But Lee always maintained his innocence, and two groups now claim DNA evidence may be used to exonerate the man nearly three years after his death.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Innocence Project sued officials in the central Arkansas town of Jacksonville on Thursday, including its mayor and acting chief of police, to order the release of DNA and fingerprint evidence found at the crime scene, which they say do not match Lee’s.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Lee’s sister Patricia Young, seeks to have the evidence tested and run through national databases for the first time. The groups claim the possibly exonerating evidence they hope to test at a nationally accredited laboratory likely belongs to the person who bludgeoned the 26-year-old Arkansas woman to death with a tire tool in her Jacksonville home 27 years ago.
It includes hairs from the bedroom where the murder occurred, fingernail scrapings from Reese and five fingerprints from the bloody murder scene.
“Since Ledell’s execution, we have discovered a wealth of new evidence supporting his claim of innocence,” said Nina Morrison, senior litigation counsel at the Innocence Project. “All of this evidence should have been presented to the courts while Ledell was still alive, but it wasn’t because he couldn’t afford a quality defense.”
Legal challenges blocked four executions in the lead-up to Arkansas’ plan to put eight death-row inmates to death over an 11-day span before its supply of the lethal injection drug midazolam expired at the end of April 2017. But the U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt Lee’s execution after he unsuccessfully petitioned the Eighth Circuit for a stay.
The lawsuit filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court says an investigation conducted by the groups after Lee’s execution provides strong reason to believe he may have been innocent. It argues the evidence is subject to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Act as public record, and that it is in the public’s interest to release it.
“If Mr. Lee is innocent, the release of these records may also reveal that a person other than Ledell Lee murdered Debra Reese in 1993 and permit the apprehension and prosecution of that person for her murder,” the 80-page lawsuit says.
A judge in Tennessee last year rejected a similar petition filed by the daughter of Sedley Alley, who was executed in 2006 for a double murder. The Memphis judge ruled she did not have legal standing to seek DNA testing of evidence in the case.
Lee would be the first person to be proven innocent by DNA and fingerprint evidence after being executed if he is ultimately cleared of the charges, according to the Innocence Project. Arkansas has not carried out any executions since April 2017 when its supply of lethal injection drugs expired.