Press Release

Ledell Lee Files Civil Rights Lawsuit Seeking Stay of Execution to Prove Innocence Through DNA Testing

Arkansas death row prisoner Ledell Lee, who is scheduled for execution tonight, has filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court to allow time for DNA testing that could prove his innocence.  Mr. Lee, who is represented by attorneys from the Innocence Project and the ACLU, filed the suit immediately after the Arkansas Supreme Court denied his emergency stay motion. Yesterday, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to Stacey Johnson to allow for DNA testing in his case. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Lee were scheduled to be executed back-to-back tonight starting at 7 p.m. CDT.

“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, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.  “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 new filing can be accessed here.

Arkansas had previously scheduled eight executions to be carried out in four days between April 17 – 27, 2017. Four of those eight men are now under stay.

Mr. Lee has always maintained his innocence of the 1993 murder and sexual assault of Debra Reese.  Numerous unknown fingerprints were found at the crime scene, yet none were from Mr. Lee.

At trial, the prosecution claimed that two small spots of “human blood” on shoes recovered by the police from Mr. Lee were likely the victim’s blood.  Yet despite the extremely bloody nature of the crime, no other blood was found anywhere on Mr. Lee’s shoes, or any of his clothing.  Newly available DNA testing could prove whether the spots were in fact the victim’s blood.

Attorneys are also seeking to test hairs of purported African-American origin that were recovered at the scene.  At trial, the state argued that the hairs came from the defendant, after witnesses reported seeing a lone black male enter and exit the home of the victim, who was white.  The state’s experts claimed that the hairs were “consistent” with Mr. Lee’s, based on microscopic examination – a forensic method that has since been discredited.

DNA testing could prove not only if the hairs came from Mr. Lee, but a DNA profile could also be identified from the hairs that could help determine who really committed the crime – including comparing it to the millions of DNA profiles in the national DNA databank.  DNA testing and databank searches were not available at Mr. Lee’s trial, but are standard practice in 2017.

The other main evidence in the case was the testimony of three eyewitnesses who identified Lee as a man they saw in the area.  The nation’s 349 DNA exonerations have proven that eyewitness identifications are unreliable. Eyewitness misidentification was a contributing factor in 71 percent of the 349 DNA exonerations, and 32 percent of the DNA exonerations involved multiple misidentifications.

The criminal justice system has completely failed Mr. Lee since he was arrested for the crime.  Mr. Lee was tried by a judge who concealed that he was having an affair with the assistant prosecutor on the case, whom he later married. Mr. Lee’s first state post-conviction counsel introduced the evidence of the affair by calling the judge’s ex-wife, who testified about the affair after opposing the subpoena. Mr. Lee’s lawyer, however, was so intoxicated at the hearing that the prosecution asked for him to be drug tested after he slurred, stumbled, and made incoherent arguments.

Mr. Lee has fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, significant brain damage and significant intellectual disability – important defenses to the death penalty that his lawyers failed to litigate.

Mr. Lee won new proceedings because of the lawyer’s drunken state, however his representation did not improve after that attorney‘s dismissal. His next lawyers failed to introduce evidence of the affair, giving up one of many of Mr. Lee’s critical arguments, and never pursued his innocence or intellectual disability claims.  Nor did they ever ask the court to order DNA testing.

Mr. Lee was recently appointed new counsel who asked the ACLU and the Innocence Project to assist in representing Mr. Lee for the purposes of seeking DNA testing.  The Innocence Project has presented the Arkansas courts with an affidavit from a nationally recognized DNA expert explaining these scientific tests could now exonerate Mr. Lee before his execution.

A copy of the appeal filed is available here.


  1. Lorraine William's

    Ledell Lee is innocence I know he is cause that day I saw his and he was with me and other female friend that day I saw his he was okay and no blood was on his so that morning he was with friend all that day

  2. Neil Davis

    The huffington post presents the following as a quote from Mr. Lee’s attorney;

    “While reasonable people can disagree on whether death is an appropriate form of punishment, no one should be executed when there is a possibility that person is innocent.”

    Moving forward when discussing this case, it may behoove you to amend this slightly thus;

    While reasonable people can disagree on whether death is an appropriate form of punishment, no one should be executed when there is a common procedure that we all use as proof in every kind of court which can show us clearly if that person is in fact innocent.

    An execution costs [x] and cannot be reversed, a DNA test costs [y], and in no way prevents a future execution.

    It’s a bit longer than your statement, but if given another forum where this aspect, shared by too many others, of Mr. Lee’s tragic story can be brought to light, this formulation might be a more respectfully rigorous approach toward reaching skeptics.

    At any rate carry on. At the very least you inspire me to the point where I may get off my own ass and try to do something more useful with my life again, odds and obstacles be damned.

    With respect,

    Neil Davis

  3. Margaret Underhill

    I prayed for this man (at the time of praying I did not know Mr. Lee’s name) when I first heard of the Arkansas rush for his execution and others on death row because of concern of drug expiration. I read on the internet of the Mr. Lee’s execution on Thursday night. I was so saddened and I prayed more. I was even saddened more when I read the US Supreme Court vote 5 to 4 to proceed with the execution. I am a nurse, I have studied science and human behavior. In Mr. Lee’s case there were so many variables that should have been corrected. The most important one being to do DNA tests on the blood and hair samples. I know these test are expensive but should not be denied in any case particularly if the only scientific evidence was microscopic comparison of hair samples for 20 years ago. We now have more sophisticated ways to test evidence.
    Thank you for what you do at The Innocence Project. Your coverage seemed to be the most accurate from all that I read since last night. Thank you for trying to save Mr. Lee, may he rest in peace. May his 51 years of life not be wasted, may he inspire us all to do more and to try to save lives and demand justice for all who particularly when they cannot defend themselves.

  4. Chelsia Berry

    Does anything happen to the state if Leddell Lee is found to be innocent?

  5. Rachel Morse

    Will the DNA evidence still be tested?

  6. Ronald Garrett

    If DNA evidence exonerates someone put to death those responsible should pay with their own freedom if not with their lives.

  7. Theresa

    It’s a travesty of justice that in this day of advanced forensic testing these prisoners’ cases don’t get a review and further testing is not done to ensure the right person was convicted and deserves the punishment that was handed down to them. By some estimates, as many as 10 percent of prisoners are wrongfully convicted and these people deserve the chance to be exhonerated and set free. I know the families of the victims want to see justice served, and they deserve that, but if I were one of them, I would be equally horrified to find out the wrong person had been put to death or was wasting away in prison not able to live free and in peace. #freeAdnanSyed, #freeEdAtes,#freeJoeyWatkins.

  8. Gentlemen: I hope Ledell Lee’s crime scene evidence WILL be DNA tested, even though Lee has been executed. His estate should INSIST on DNA testing of all the physical evidence from his crime scene. Our nation needs to know for sure, whether we just executed an INNOCENT man, or not. If so, this horrible case should galvanize the State and Federal Courts to do the right thing, and MANDATE DNA testing in ALL felony cases where such evidence exists, so we NEVER repeat the atrocity that has just occurred in the awful case of Ledell Lee.

  9. Jack McEntire

    I am praying so hard that they test his DNA post execution. What a horrific, hellish, unfathomable miscarriage of justice. Rest in peace Lee

  10. Janelle Natalie

    I am curious to know WHY the Innocent Project decided to only step in before it was to late? Lee was on the row for over 25 years and the IP decided to step in only when they see that Arkansas is starting their conveyor belt of killings. I feel that if someone would have been helping Lee over the last 25 years to push to get DNA testing maybe things would have been done a long time ago. Lee was a poor black man in prison with no one listening until all of the sudden there is much media attention in Arkansas about the conveyor killings they will be doing and then all of the sudden people are listening. Its just sad it ever got to this point for someone to listen. Justices is flawed and I see bigger flaws even now. I can appreciate the IP for stepping up and helping so many cases but there was no need to wait so long. I hope the IP will do this man justices from his grave and test the DNA to stop any further killings from happening to those that still are arguing for the testing to be done and you can then site Lee vs Arkansas, in stopping another innocent man in a “Dead Man’s Walk”

  11. The majority of our Supreme Court Justices decided NOT to allow time to have crucial DNA evidence tested prior to signing Mr. Lee’s death sentence.
    I understand that they offered ‘no comment’ so it’s impossible to understand their reasoning.
    Would these 5 stand up for the rights of an unborn child incapable of surviving on its own outside the womb?
    Surely they would grant these same rights to EVERY HUMAN BEING they are called to make judgment upon. What they have done cannot be reversed.
    We may never know the results of the DNA testing. The highest court in our land just allowed a man to die without demanding that ALL evidence be considered first.
    This should send chills up the spine of every American.

  12. Susan Clipper

    It is certainly a horrible thing to put an innocent person to death, but I am not all that sure Mr. Lee fits into that group. Courts after courts rejected his appeals (8 th circuit spend a lot of time on this) saying, if I understand it correctly, even if the hair and blood turn out to be inconclusive, there is enough evidence to convict him. I also read that he was convicted in two other rape cases and was prosecuted for another rape/murder case and they did not want to retry that case because of the verdict from the Reese case. So, although one can raise all types of objections on the process (some of which are probably valid, although they seem to be all allegations from what I can find) I am not convinced that I have reasonable doubt to support the not guilty side. Most of these arguments about almost everything went wrong with his defense in the past is generally perceived as a common tactic to delay the process, and I doubt many people will find them convincing – somehow the last lawyers turned out to be competent, all the previous ones were not. Those arguments should have been used from the very beginning and Innocence project and ACLU should have helped him from the vest start if they were convinced of his innocence, rather than fighting an uphill battle at the last minute.

  13. T. A. Brown

    It is a sad day when the criminal justice system executes an individual with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, significant brain damage and significant intellectual disability. I thought the system could not execute anyone with such conditions. What is going to happen to the state, the negligence defense, and will DNA testing be preformed?

  14. Ian

    So why deny him a DNA test that would either confirm his guilt or innocence Susan?

    • Susan Clipper

      Ian, because according to the Arkansas Supreme Court (if I recollect correctly), even without the DNA test results, there was enough evidence to convict him. That is not my argument, that came from one of the higher courts. Why didn’t he ask for a DNA test in the past 10 years or so, if that was an issue? Why did they bring it up at the 11 th hour?

  15. Tarie Shull

    I would rather see 1,000 guilty people get off Scott free than 1 innocent person be convicted of anything!!!!!

    The truth does not set you free anymore I’m sorry, sometimes I think judges and their group of associates become dehumanized. Not being in the real world, how do you judge another without absolute evidence?

    I know a kid that was convicted of multiple felonies (and by the way crimes you are convicted of as a juvenile that would have been considered a crime in an adult court show up on background checks). Most of the felonies were grand larceny. Sine there had been several different times things we’re taken out of people’s cars at the same store they convicted him of ALL of them! Even though one of them he was on a cruise with his family in Mexico??? The judge hates him. In fact he waited to convict and sentence him until he was 18 years and 6 days old! Can’t go to detention at 18 so they sent him to jail. In jail he got hooked on drugs. And he had some diagnosis and in special education as well. Meant nothing plus he missed part of his senior year of high school too. What a great lesson he learned about telling the truth!!!

    I feel terrible for Mr. Lee and his family!! But I am sad to say I am not surprised.

    We live in this real world and have common sense i don’t have to be a judge to say from what I have read that he should have been a suspect!

  16. Justin Morahan

    Susan You seem to know it all. But your reliance on “the higher courts” for truth (if you recollect correctly) doesn’t impress me. As Ian said “Why deny him a DNA test?” In many other cases “there was enough evidence to convict” and still the people convicted turned out to be innocent when a DNA test was done. You are full of faux concern/blame for the Innocence Project. Spare us the hypocrisy. The State of Arkansas has sullied the name of all its inhabitants because of this outrageous, savage judgment.

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