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Innocence Project files suit against Jacksonville, Ark.


The Innocence Project and its partners announced that they will sue the city of Jacksonville, Ark. for wrongfully executing an innocent African-American man and refusing to allow DNA testing.

The case of Ledell Lee saddened and infuriated many activists and opponents of capital punishment and the treatment of African-Americans in the criminal justice system.

Before his execution, Lee filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court to allow enough time for DNA testing, to prove his innocence after the emergency stay motion filed by the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was denied.

“It is inappropriate for the state to rush to execute before a defendant’s innocence claim can be properly examined. All we are asking for is a hearing on Mr. Lee’s claim that modern DNA testing can prove his innocence. The federal court must now step in to ensure that Arkansas does not put an innocent man to death,” said Nina Morrison, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project in 2017. “Serious questions remain in Mr. Lee’s case and in several of the other cases scheduled for Arkansas’ back-to-back executions. It is vitally important that each of these men has a meaningful chance to present these claims in court before any execution proceeds.”

The verdict

Lee was sentenced to death in 1993 and executed on April 20, 2017, 24 years after he was accused of the murder and sexual assualt of Debra Reese.

Since his arrest, he maintained his innocence.

Although the Innocence Project and the ACLU were unable to extend the stay of execution, they didn’t quit the case. Instead, while Lee was still alive, they investigated the found evidence and collected new evidence that was overlooked. However, local officials still denied the request for DNA testing. Therefore, in collaboration with the law firm Hogan Lovells US LLP,  the ACLU, the ACLU of Arkansas, and Little Rock attorney John Tull, the Innocence Project filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on behalf of Lee’s sister, Patricia Young.

The Process

On Jan. 31, the City of Jacksonville consented to proceed with a DNA testing and fingerprint evidence regarding Lee’s case.

According to the Innocence Project, 167 innocent people have been exonerated from death row over the last 44 years. But an estimated 4 percent of defendants sentenced to death are wrongfully convicted. Over 20 of those people have been freed with the use of DNA testing, such as the one requested in Lee’s case.

The case

There was no evidence found to link Lee with  the murder of Reese. It was also admitted by the prosecution’s own experts that the results of some of the forensic tests were said to be “inconclusive” at Lee’s trial, yet the prosecution blew up the importance of the test results, which led to Lee’s conviction. Another important aspect during Lee’s trial is the fact that the state argued that hairs from the crime scene were said to be “microscopically consistent” with Lee’s hair, based on a “visual examination” conducted by the prosecutions’ experts. However, this forensic method has since been discontinued, due to unreliable results. The prosecution claimed at the trial that two small spots resembling “human blood” on Lee’s shoes, were possibly the victim’s blood. Although despite the extreme loss of blood at the crime scene, no other traces of blood were found anywhere on Lee’s shoes, or any of his clothing.

DNA evidence from the crime scene has never been tested with modern technology, which is crucial, since modern DNA testing is the only method that can scientifically confirm the actual source of either hair, scrapings from under the fingernails of the victim, or other key evidence. However, in Lee’s case the court denied to allow new evidence or allow DNA testing that could have helped prove Lee’s innocence. The court argued that it was requested too late for it to be processed.

There were two trials for Lee’s case. The first one ended with a hung jury, after the jury was exposed to various alibi witnesses whose testimony proposed he couldn’t have carried out the crime. Nonetheless, at the second trial, the defense didn’t call any alibi witnesses, for reasons unknown.

Lee was therefore convicted and sentenced to death. Lee’s execution was scheduled for an 11-day period with eight other inmates because the supply of lethal injection drugs was about to expire in Arkansas. However, four of those eight were granted stays of execution. Lee was not one of them.

Justice for Lee

After Lee’s execution date was set, the Innocence Project and the ACLU started to work on Lee’s case, and found crucial flaws in the evidence that was used to convict him.

Leading forensic experts, Alicia Wilcox—a footwear examination expert—pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, and eyewitness misidentification expert Dr. Jennifer Dysart, who evaluated the case,  agreed that the evidence initially used on Lee at the trial had significant flaws. The newfound evidence provides strong enough reasons that Lee is in fact innocent.

The fingerprints that were found at the crime scene were determined not to be Lee’s, but to this day have not been identified. Lee’s lawyers failed to have the found fingerprints examined independently before his execution. It has been discovered that at least five fingerprints eligible to be searched in the National Automated Fingerprint Identification System database could have made a difference by identifying the source in a short period of time.

The Innocence Project has found evidence that Lee’s post-conviction lawyer was battling substance abuse and that he was asked to be drug tested after he proved to be incoherent.

Lee’s post-conviction lawyer also failed to present a defense, or introduce valuable evidence that could have proven Lee’s innocence. Because of his substance use disorder and the immense workload, Lee’s lawyer tried to withdraw from the case and asked for support, but was repeatedly denied. Nevertheless, he supports the ongoing investigation done by the Innocence Project and the ACLU and has encouraged the courts to permit the DNA testing.

Judge’s affair

It was also found that Lee was tried by a judge who hid the fact he was having an affair with the assistant prosecutor on Lee’s case, whom he later married. Lee’s first state post-conviction counsel submitted the evidence regarding the affair by contacting the judge’s ex-wife, who testified.

Additionally, Lee also suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, as well as serious brain damage and crucial intellectual disability.  His laywers failed to process this important aspect of defense against the death penalty.

Although Lee won new arguments due to his lawyer’s intoxicated state, his representation didn’t improve after the dismissal of his attorney. His new lawyers also failed to submit new evidence of the affair, one of Lee’s many arguments which got dismissed, and they failed to prove his innocence or intellectual disability claims, as well as failed to ask the court to request DNA testing.

Before Lee’s execution, he was appointed a new counsel who asked the Innocence Project and the ACLU to aid in representing Lee for the grounds of requesting DNA testing. Therefore, the Innocence Project has introduced the Arkansas courts with an affidavit—a written statement confirmed by oath or affirmation, for use as evidence in court—from a nationally recognized DNA expert, which shows that these scientific tests could have had Lee exonerated before his execution.

Although, it is too late to save Lee’s life with DNA and fingerprint testing from the crime scene evidence, it can prove whether or not the state of Arkansas executed an innocent man. At the same time, the identity of Reese’s actual perpetrator can be revealed, if it turns out that Lee is innocent. Justice would be served to Lee’s family, as well as Reese’s.