As It Happens

DNA test may have cleared Arkansas man executed in rush to use expiring death penalty drugs: lawyer

Ledell Lee was pronounced dead 11:56 p.m. Thursday, shattering the hopes of those working behind the scenes to clear his name.
Ledell Lee appears in Pulaski County Circuit Court Tuesday for a hearing in which lawyers argued to stop his execution. However, Lee was put to death on Thursday night, just before midnight. (The Associated Press)

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Ledell Lee maintained his innocence until the day he died.

The Arkansas inmate was executed Thursday night for the 1993 murder of Debra Reese, marking the state's first execution in more than a decade. Shortly before he died, he told the BBC: "You are about to murder an innocent man."

Lee was the first to die in a group of eight men Arkansas had planned to execute in 11 days in a rush to use its supply of lethal injection drugs before they expire at the end of the month. Three other planned executions were canceled this week because of court decisions. Another inmate scheduled for execution next week has received a stay. 

 'It's never too late to find out if you're executing the wrong man.'- Nina  Morrison , Innocence Project

Reese's family told reporters that Lee deserved to die for the grisly crime, in which she was beaten to death with a tire iron.

But lawyer Nina Morrison, who has been working on Lee's case, says he never got a fair shot.

"It's hard to find the words. It's extremely painful," she told As It Happens. "I am just outraged and devastated that the state of Arkansas rushed to execute Ledell Lee before he got the DNA test that could have proven the truth of what he has been saying for 20 years."

Morrison is a senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, a non-profit group that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Protesters are shown on April 14 outside the state capitol building in Little Rock, Ark., to voice their opposition to the state's spate of planned executions. (Kelly P. Kissel/The Associated Press)

Carol Off: What is the evidence that he [believed] and you believe might have cleared his name?

Nina Morrison: All we were asking to do is conduct DNA testing on the same evidence the state used to convict him for murder at trial 23 years ago.

There were three hairs of apparent African-American origin that were found on the victim's body that they said were consistent with his, but no DNA testing was done. ... Today, DNA testing could tell us with certainty whether those hairs came from Mr. Lee.

And we also were seeking to test some blood evidence from the scene that had never been tested. 

CO: And what were the reasons the state gave for not allowing that to happen?

NM: Primarily, what they said was that he brought this DNA testing too late, that it was filed on the eve of his execution and he should have done it long ago.

There's a lot of problems with that argument. One is it's never too late to find out if you're executing the wrong man for a crime he didn't commit.

The other big problem is that Mr. Lee never had lawyers before two weeks ago who knew anything about DNA and presented his claim to the courts. We only got brought on after his execution day was set and the lawyers, who were newly assigned, called us and asked for our help.

Arkansas's supply of midazolam expires on April 30. (Associated Press)

CO: Can you just remind people why there was this rush to have Mr. Lee executed so quickly?

NM: It was something we had never seen before in the history of the death penalty in this country.

Arkansas had purchased a supply of drugs to use for lethal injection and they realized a few months ago that one of the drugs that they needed, that they had, was about to expire — you know, just the way we have a carton of milk in our refrigerator that has an expiration date, the drug had a date after which it could not be used.

But rather than simply throwing it away and waiting to see if they could get new drugs, they decided they would rush and put eight different men on deck to be executed in less than a two-week period. It was just unprecedented and horrifying.

​With files from the The Associated Press. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our full interview with Nina Morrison. 

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