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DNA test reveals innocent man may have been executed for 1993 murder

A home DNA testing kit. (Tony Webster, Wikimedia Commons/Released)

Four years after an Arkansas man was put to death for the brutal murder of his neighbor, new evidence that was previously withheld in the case reveals another man may have been responsible for the crime.

Up until the day he was executed by lethal injection in 2017, Ledell Lee had always maintained his innocence in the 1993 bludgeoning death of 26-year-old Debra Reese in a suburb of Little Rock.

Genetic material found on the murder weapon, which was never tested until 27 years after the crime when the Jacksonville City Council voted in January 2020 to release it, now appears to prove that Lee may have been telling the truth.

“My dying words will always be, as it has been, ‘I am an innocent man.'” — Ledell Lee, in final interview a day before his execution in 2017

“My dying words will always be, as it has been, ‘I am an innocent man,'” Lee told the BBC in an interview published on April 19, 2017, a day before his capital punishment was carried out, with Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch casting the tie-breaking vote to overturn an injunction by a lower court to stay the execution.

No physical evidence was ever produced that connected Lee to the killing, yet on April 20, 2017, Lee became the first person to be executed in Arkansas in more than a decade.

“Lee always insisted that he did not commit this crime and that he was innocent. We just want to know the truth,” Young said.

At the time, the city of Jacksonville agreed to allow new forensic testing on a bloody wooden Billy club and a bloody t-shirt that were recovered from the victim’s bedroom. The items were sent to a nationally accredited lab for testing, along with five fingerprints taken from the crime scene, none of which matched Lee’s DNA or fingerprint profile.

The new DNA profile of the unknown suspect has since been entered into an FBI national criminal database, but so far there has been no match to come back to anyone who has been previously convicted or arrested for a violent crime.

Authorities, however, are holding out the possibility that one day the person matching the new DNA profile would be apprehended, and once and for all prove Lee’s innocence.

“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,” said a statement from Innocence Project Senior Litigation Counsel Nina Morrison. “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. We are hopeful that one or more of these forensic law enforcement databases will generate additional information in the future.”

At a news conference earlier this week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson called the new DNA evidence in the case “inconclusive” and defended signing off on Lee’s execution, saying “It’s my duty to carry out the law… the fact is that the jury found him guilty based upon the information they had.”

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge also issued a statement this week that she was not convinced of Lee’s innocence.

“The courts consistently rejected Ledell Lee’s frivolous claims because the evidence demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that he murdered Debra Reese by beating her to death inside her home with a tire thumper,” she said. “I am prayerful that Debra’s family has had closure following his lawful execution in 2017.”


(c) 2021 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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