Jurisprudence

Four Years After Arkansas Executed Ledell Lee, DNA Points to Someone Else

New testing suggests a hasty death penalty case killed the wrong person.

A 1990s photo of Ledell Lee and another young black man with their arms over each other's shoulders.
Ledell Lee, right, maintained his innocence up to the end. Courtesy of the ACLU/Patricia Young

On April 20, 2017, Ledell Lee was executed by the state of Arkansas for murder, with Lee insisting to the end that he was innocent of the crime. A new test of DNA evidence in the case, which the state refused to do before executing him, points to a different suspect than Lee.

Lee was put to death four years ago as part of a rush in which Arkansas tried to execute eight people in 11 days, so that the state could use scarce lethal injection drugs before they expired. In that mad dash, four men were executed, three had their executions stayed, and one was granted clemency. Lee was one of the four put to death after Neil Gorsuch, in his first vote as a member of the Supreme Court, joined a 5–4 ruling to allow the execution to proceed. Even then, Lee’s case was considered one of the most seriously flawed, with a distinct chance that the state would be putting an innocent man to death.

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That decision to allow the execution to go forward is looking worse and worse. Last week, the ACLU and Innocence Project released the results of DNA testing that was requested prior to Lee’s execution but was only permitted to go ahead after a lawsuit was filed by Lee’s sister last year. Those results demonstrated that another man’s DNA was found on the murder weapon, a wooden club, and on a shirt that had been wrapped around the murder weapon. The unknown man’s DNA, however, was not found in the FBI’s national criminal database.

Five sets of fingerprints found at the scene of the crime that did not belong to Lee were also entered into a national database but also yielded no result. The Arkansas State Crime Laboratory has yet to test those fingerprints against its own database. Six hairs from the scene were also tested. Lee was excluded as the source of five but could not be excluded as the source of the sixth, though such “mitochondrial DNA profiles may be shared by thousands of individuals in a given population,” the Innocence Project noted.

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“The reason mitochondrial DNA profiles aren’t ‘unique’ and may be common to thousands of people in a community is that they are shared by everyone in a common maternal line—even very distant cousins across different generations,” a representative from the ACLU said. She continued:

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In small communities or ones where many residents share some common ancestry, two people may share an identical mitochondrial DNA profile even if they have no idea that they are distantly related. So while mitochondrial DNA can be used to exclude someone as a potential source of a hair, or to narrow down a pool of potential candidates, it can’t be used to positively identify the source.

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“While this phase of the litigation and court-ordered DNA testing is now concluded, the investigation into the case remains open due to the possibility of a future database ‘hit’ to the unknown male DNA or unknown fingerprints from the crime scene,” Nina Morrison, senior litigation counsel at the Innocence Project, said in a statement last week. “We are hopeful that one or more of these forensic law enforcement databases will generate additional information in the future.”

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The case now appears to be in limbo, but the murder weapon DNA from a man who is not Ledell Lee adds to one of the many, many flaws in the case against him. As I wrote last year:

Lee’s first trial ended in a hung jury. At his second one, his lawyers did not bring up some of the potentially exonerating testimony and evidence raised in the first, including alibi testimony from Lee’s family members. In that second trial, a jury of 11 white Arkansans and one black Arkansan—in a county where nearly one-third of residents were black—found him guilty after a four-day trial and three hours of deliberation. The conviction came one week after the racially charged O.J. Simpson verdict, and one witness alluded to that verdict by recalling a conversation she had “last week, when they let O.J. Simpson go.”

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Lee’s case also relied heavily on shoe-pattern forensic evidence that was later demonstrated to also be heavily flawed. The flaws in the case continued through the appellate process. Lee’s initial appellate attorney appeared drunk in court and later acknowledged that he had substance abuse problems. More importantly, he never introduced evidence that Lee was intellectually disabled and never won testing on the DNA samples that now point to the likelihood of a different suspect.

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Earlier this week, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson insisted that he did his “duty to carry out the law” following the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2017. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, meanwhile, dismissed the DNA evidence and still insisted that Lee had committed the 1993 murder of Debra Reese, for which he was executed.

The sad fact is that Arkansas should not have executed Lee and further evidence indicates that another man may have committed the crime. Yet Lee’s family still must wait for definitive proof of another suspect, which may never come. Either way, advocates for continuation of the death penalty should have to contend with the nightmarish facts of Lee’s case as long as executions continue to occur in the United States.

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