Death Penalty

DNA Testing Could Prove That Arkansas Executed an Innocent Man Three Years Ago

The ACLU and the Innocence Project are suing to uncover the evidence.

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The State of Arkansas executed Ledell Lee on April 20, 2017, for the brutal 1993 murder of Debra Reese. The Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit last week to use DNA testing to posthumously prove Lee's innocence. The suit was filed on behalf of Lee's younger sister, Patricia Young.

Lee was the first to die in a rapid succession of executions that were carried out in a rush because Arkansas' lethal injection drug was expiring at the end of the month.

Reese was killed on February 9, 1993. She told her mother that morning that a black male knocked on the door of her Jacksonville home to ask for tools. She said that she was frightened, and that she would travel to her mother's house, about two blocks away, when she was finished with her hair.

Reese's mother called the police; Reese was dead by the time they arrived on the scene. The officers found signs of a struggle, Reese's body partially covered by a rug, and a wooden tire club covered in blood. Witnesses confirmed to the police that they saw a single black male in the area around the time of her death, and Lee was arrested two days later.

At least two of the witnesses who testified failed to identify Lee either in a police lineup or at the trial. Meanwhile, Lee had to contend with deeply inadequate court-appointed lawyers. One was struggling with addiction, another eventually surrendered his license after suffering from mental illness, others had conflicts of interest, and all of them failed to investigate his claim of innocence. Though prosecutors used merely circumstancial evidence to tie him to the murder, Lee's lawyers did not consult with forensics experts and never even asked for DNA testing.

Blood splatters from the crime scene suggested that Reese's blood would have transferred to the killer's clothes. Investigators found a pinhead-sized stain of blood on each of Lee's shoes. The lab tested the tiny drops, but it used up the entire sample and did not even have enough to determine blood type. The only other blood found on Lee's clothes was on his jacket; when tested, the blood turned out to be neither Lee's nor Reese's. The state introduced the inconclusive blood stains found on his shoes, and Lee's lawyers failed to inform the court about the results from the sample on the jacket.

Meanwhile, impressions made of the texture of Lee's shoes did not match the impressions made at the crime scene. One expert observed at the trial that the general characteristics of Lee's shoes matched the evidence, but he failed to discuss the differences between Lee's shoes and the impressions' more distinct marks and patterns. Another scientist examined hair from the scene. Though he concluded that he could neither identify nor exclude Lee, the state still managed to use his findings in a way that seemed to implicate Lee.

The FOIA suit asks for the original fingerprints taken during the investigation and the DNA evidence recovered from the scene of the crime. If this ends up exonerating Lee, it could also point to Reese's real killer, since the evidence could be submitted to a national database and compared with prior offenders.

"The public, including Ms. Young, has a strong interest in knowing whether the true killer responsible for Ms. Reese's death remains at large or whether Arkansas executed an innocent man," the suit argues.

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  1. I think the Death Penalty should be suspended until many of the corrupt procedures in Capital criminal cases are resolved.

    1. All Capital crime Defendants should get equal defense funds that the prosecution uses (if needed).
    2. All Capital crime Defendants should get get and unlimited DNA testing for any evidence available (including their own).
    3. All Capital cases should get automatic appellate review through all available higher courts (en banc too), including SCOTUS and it be required that all judges be on the record that they reviewed the case and all judges must give a decision.
    4. Any prosecutor or government employee who is found to have falsified evidence, suborned perjury, or any other violation of the rights of the Defendant be subjected to a term of prison.
    5. All Capital case Defendants should have at least one public defender and one private attorney appointed to defend the client.
    6. All verdicts and death sentences should be unanimous.

    There are likely a few more but these are the main ones off the top of my head.

    1. There are likely a few more but these are the main ones off the top of my head.

      Sorry, but fuck you, cut spending:

      1. Reduce the number of capital crimes on the books.
      2. Tie funding for prosecution should be directly tied to budgets and/or reciprocal sources; police and prison pensions and/or union funds. The more people we jail the better prison pensions become. If we execute everybody, we shouldn’t need pensions.
      3. If a defendant chooses to represent himself the prosecution will be headed up by someone of equivalent legal acumen at market cost.

      Seriously, I see a lot of outlays and free shit in your plan for people who have a better than 50/50 chance of being the scum of the Earth. I’m not against making the system more equitable but fucking over taxpayers so that more prosecutors can run up higher tabs against more criminals (with the added bonus of sweeping up the occasional poor dope on a procedural crime) is the opposite of making it more equitable.

      1. 3. If a defendant chooses to represent himself the prosecution will be headed up by someone of equivalent legal acumen at market cost.

        Explain how this would work. If the defendant is a complete idiot, the prosecution has to be done by a complete idiot?

        1. Explain how this would work. If the defendant is a complete idiot, the prosecution has to be done by a complete idiot?

          Pay me first, then explain to me what the difference is between one public and one court-appointed private attorney and two public defenders, and *then* I’ll explain to you how we get complete morons to try and defend cases on the cheap.

          Or you can keep your money and figure it out for yourself. I admit, my solution is tougher than the standard “Throw more people *and* money at the problem.”

          1. So you don’t actually have an answer.

            1. The obvious answer to you question is ‘yes’.

              The less obvious answer is that we’ve already got (at least) 2 public defenders in this specific case and one appears to have been some level of inept drug addict. Doubling the number of inept drug addicts on the case isn’t going to improve outcomes substantially and that’s assuming you can find the bodies.

              If you’re just clicking your heels together and wishing for more attorneys might as well wish for them all to work pro bono (not that all the wishing in the world will save anyone’s life).

    2. Or, just end it. Doing it right would be so expensive and time consuming, we might as well not do it at all. In some cases its warranted and guilt isn’t in doubt at all, but quietly rotting away in a cell forever isn’t that far off in severity.

    3. #4 is already on the books – and utterly inadequate. We need something much stronger and more likely to actually be prosecuted.

      #5 doesn’t make sense. If the government is required to provide an attorney to the defendant, that attorney becomes a “public defender” by definition.

      1. I think he means the government hires an attorney out of a private practice, rather than assigning one from a public defender pool

        1. You want the public defender pool. More experience trying those cases, and more give-a-shit, believe it or not. Texas did the appointed private lawyer thing for awhile and it was mostly an unmitigated disaster. Judges did the appointments, and judges don’t want an attorney that’s going to make the case go even longer than a capital case already goes.

    4. I’m not sure I agree with all of your individual points, but the spirit of your comment is excellent. While I have no moral compunctions about the death penalty in theory, it is deeply flawed as carried out in this country, and has unquestionably resulted in the execution of innocent men. Death penalty apologists often make the point that these people committed other crimes…even murders… and they may be right, but that’s not how things work in this country. We don’t execute people for committing some other, nonspecific crime, we convict and sentence based on evidence of a specific crime.

    5. The DA’s office and the Public Defender’s should be one and the same. There’d be a lot less “let’s hang this guy” attitudes if the attorneys never knew until they were assigned a case if they were going to be prosecution or defense.
      Yeah, it might be a little more expensive, as the PB office is considered a step-child and currently get paid a lot less than the DA’s office (where they aren’t using pro-bono lawyers). But with all the attorneys in the same office, not getting to pick which side they are going to try, both sides would grow as attorneys in understanding of what justice should look like.
      (Yeah, there is the problem that BOTH attorneys would railroad a defendant, which I guess would be the biggest reason there are two separate offices. But if the DA made it clear that what they were really interested in was justice and not just a conviction rate, maybe it could be made to work properly)

  2. 7. All capital cases should be decided by juries comprising only intelligent, rational, unemotional, and perfectly objective people.

    1. Thus negating the death penalty.

  3. That first part is at least as important as the second – if you’ve convicted an innocent man, there’s still a guilty man running around out there free. Given that the ACLU and the Innocence Project don’t involve themselves in every case where there’s more complete DNA evidence available but in cases where there’s both more complete DNA evidence and a reasonable doubt on the part of these lawyers that justice was served, I think we might have a case of negligence here. The cops and prosecutors in this case are no doubt confident they used reasonable care in investigating and prosecuting the case, the ACLU and the Innocence Project seem to disagree. Well, let’s have a trial on the issue over whether or not reasonable people might disagree on what’s reasonable, shall we? Why should cops and prosecutors be held to a lesser standard of reasonable care than manufacturers of children’s toys or frozen foods or vaping devices? People get second-guessed all the time over whether or not they were acting reasonably prudently, why not hold cops and prosecutors to account for whether they were acting reasonably when it turns out they were pursuing a case against an innocent man rather than investigating further to find the actual guilty party?

    1. That’s if you’re ever asked if it’s worse to (a) convict an innocent man or (b) let a guilty man go free, the answer is always (b) because you’re necessarily letting a guilty man go free if you choose (a).

      They use that question to screen jurors. Half the sobs always choose (a) and that’s who the prosecutors want on the jury.

      It’s also why you should distrust the judgment of people within whom the impulse to punish is strong. They’re generally dumb people who can’t see the bigger picture.

      1. Well I fucked that up. It’s always worse to convict an innocent man given a choice of the two options.

      2. A subset of (a) would probably lock up any and all suspects, to be (reasonably) sure the actually guilty party is among them

        1. A subset of (a) would probably lock up any and all suspects, to be (reasonably) sure the actually guilty party is among them

          How?

          If (a) is ” It’s always worse to convict an innocent man “, how would locking up any and all suspects ever be construed to be a subset of that?

          and DAMN I am late to this party.

  4. I’m reading a lot of things mentioning doubt about the physical evidence. What I’m not seeing in this article is evidence that definitely proves this guy couldn’t have done it. Which is what you need, if you start throwing around statements like ‘Arkansas just executed an innocent guy.’

    What evidence besides the disputed physical evidence led the cops to suspect Mr. Lee in the first place?

    1. It’d sure be nice to be able to but you shouldn’t have to prove you’re innocent.

      1. No, you don’t have to prove innocence, but you do have to overcome the case for guilt as presented by the prosecution. I, like Jay, see nothing presented in this article that would refute, or otherwise exclusively contradict the original case.

        Absence of detectable and identifiable DNA is not evidence. It cannot prove anything. Had the prosecution made their case with some sort of biologic sample – declaring it to be from the perp – and then he could be shown not to be the source, that would be something else entirely. But that is not what is happening here (or at least, does not appear to be the case from what is provided in the article.)

        1. My comment was just in general- you know, that presumption of innocence thing. I was not responding to this specific case.

          1. Presumption of innocence is a legal tool. It doesn’t mean the convicted was actually innocent if the conviction gets overturned. Until recently, a convicted person could not prevail in a suit for legal malpractice of their criminal counsel, if the court did not find them ‘actually innocent’.

    2. Yeah, Unreason gave short shrift to the evidence. My question is how long was his perp sheet, and for what offenses, assuming a perp sheet exists?

      1. Dangerously close to the Dalmia argument. He was a bad man so, regardless of the specifics, his execution was ‘still worth it.’

  5. How would DNA testing “prove” this guy was innocent?

    Really phoning this one in, aren’t you, Reason?

    1. Reason did this before, with the Glossip case.

      1. It’s The Innocence Project’s raison d’etre. Pointing out that the approach makes most of these cases a fools errand dispels the illusion that George Soros or the remaining Koch brother or whatever donors really do care about the poors.

  6. First of all, I do think it is fucked up to rush executions through just because the drug is expiring. (Whatever the fuck that means for a drug that will be used to kill someone!)

    But, as far as Reason’s “analysis” (and I barely maintained my straight face in using that word):

    At least two of the witnesses who testified failed to identify Lee either in a police lineup or at the trial.
    OK, how many witnesses DID identify him? Maybe the 2 witnesses were merely part of the larger case to establish time, location etc.

    Meanwhile, Lee had to contend with deeply inadequate court-appointed lawyers. One was struggling with addiction, another eventually surrendered his license after suffering from mental illness, others had conflicts of interest, and all of them failed to investigate his claim of innocence.
    This could be legitimate. However, we are talking about AT LEAST four lawyers here (1 addict, 1 nut, and others). None of them investigated his “claim of innocence”? What conflicts of interest? And there is nothing in the piece about his “claim of innocence” (such as his alibi).

    Though prosecutors used merely circumstancial evidence to tie him to the murder, Lee’s lawyers did not consult with forensics experts and never even asked for DNA testing.
    Again, this could be shitty. But, what DNA testing would the defense have asked for? Maybe they CHOSE not to ask for DNA testing because the results wouldn’t be in their favor. Forensic evidence? The article mentioned the shoe prints (an exact science for sure!!) but what else?

    I am not saying the man was absolutely guilty. I am saying the article doesn’t in any way make a good case as to why this case should be opened up at all.

    1. I don’t think they understand just how badly death penalty opponents undermine their standing and credibility when they make such weak and lousy arguments.

    2. First of all, I do think it is fucked up to rush executions through

      He killed her in 1993. He was executed in 2017.

      I don’t think that anyone can describe 24 years as a ‘rush’.

  7. After unequivecolly supporting the death penalty (eye for an eye) for years, I’ve now believe in Blackstone’s Law “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”. Our police & DA’s have far too much power to railroad citizens.

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