The State of Arkansas has executed a man who was represented in court by an intoxicated attorney but who was convicted in the brutal murder of a woman in her home with a tire thumper.
Ledell Lee was put to death on April 20, according to CNN, despite a flurry of court actions. Lee maintained that he was innocent in the 1993 slaying of Debra Reese. A tire thumper is a device used to check tire pressure in trucks.
Human rights groups argued on Lee’s side; in one odd twist, it was revealed the judge was having an affair with the prosecutor, whom he later married, the ACLU contended.
According to Slate, new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch “cast the deciding vote allowing Lee to die” – his first recorded Supreme Court vote. The majority didn’t explain its decision.
The State of Arkansas has been trying to execute eight inmates in all in 11 days in what critics are deriding as an unprecedented “conveyor belt” implementation of the death penalty. Lee was one of those inmates.
“Arkansas set out to execute eight people over the course of 11 days,” dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer wrote. “Why these eight? Why now?…apparently the reason the State decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the ‘use by’ date of the State’s execution drug is about to expire. In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random.”
Arkansas says it’s rushing the executions through because a drug it uses to administer lethal injections is set to expire. The state “had earlier planned to execute eight inmates …before Arkansas’ supply of the drug runs out at the end of the month,” starting on April 17, reported CNN.
The executions of two others – Jack Jones and Marcell Williams – are now scheduled for Monday, April 24.
Multiple courts have intervened in a variety of ways to halt the speedy execution plan, and some of the inmates scheduled to die have won reprieves. In one case, a man who was set to be put to death on April 20 was given a reprieve from a judge so he can seek enhanced DNA testing in an attempt to prove his claims of innocence. However, courts rejected Lee’s efforts to have new evidence testing.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Lee, a Serial Rapist, Was Convicted of Beating Debra Reese to Death With a Truck Thumper
Although he claimed he was innocent, Lee was convicted in the murder of Debra Reese. According to THV-11, Reese was raped and murdered in her home in 1993 at age 26 and was “struck approximately 36 times with a tire thumper, a tool used by truck drivers to check their tire pressure.” Her husband had given it to her for protection because he was a trucker who was often gone, the television station reported.
Reese was also strangled, reports The Arkansas Times.
According to THV, Lee was arrested after “witnesses claimed they saw him walking down the street that Reese’s house was on.” Crime and Capital Punishment reports, “Lee, who had just been paroled after serving time for burglary, was arrested an hour after the murder when witnesses reported seeing him walking the street.”
The television station reports that Lee was suspected of other crimes by authorities, including the strangulation and rape of another woman, but that trial ended in a hung jury. He was also convicted of two other rapes, reported THV.
“Lee was convicted for the rape of two Jacksonville women and was accused of the murder and rape of 22-year-old Christine Lewis,” reports WZZM, which notes that prosecutors dubbed him a “super predator.”
“In November 1989, Lewis was abducted from her home where she was later raped, strangled, and eventually killed. Her body was later found at an abandoned home inside a closet. That trial ended in a hung jury,” reports WZZM, which adds that prosecutors didn’t retry him in that murder only because he received the death penalty in the slaying of Reese.
According to Arkansas Matters, “The ages of Lee’s victims ranged from 17 to 70” and prosecutors called him a “psychosexual serial rapist.”
An appeal he filed in the case said he was raised in a family of “crushing poverty” where food and adult care were scarce. His mother was 16 and drank alcohol throughout the pregnancy, the appeal says.
2. The Judge Had an Affair With a Prosecutor & Lee’s Attorney Was Drunk in Court, the ACLU Contends
The ACLU reports that Lee argued in court that “he has fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, significant brain damage, and intellectual disability. These facts were concealed by the line of counsel plagued with conflicts of interests, substance abuse, serious mental illness, and gross incompetence.”
One of his appeals claimed that some of his lawyers were alcoholics and one was mentally ill.
There were other odd and disturbing twists in the case. “Lee was tried by a judge who concealed his own conflict of interest: an affair with the assistant prosecutor, to whom the judge was 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. That lawyer, however, was so intoxicated at the hearing that the state moved for him to be drug tested after he slurred, stumbled, and made incoherent arguments,” the ACLU reports.
The Innocence Project reports that Lee wanted new DNA testing in the case: “Numerous unknown fingerprints were found at the crime scene, yet none were from Lee. At trial, the prosecution claimed that two small spots of ‘human blood’ on shoes recovered by the police from Lee were likely the victim’s blood. Yet despite the extremely bloody nature of the crime, no other blood was found anywhere on Lee’s shoes, or any of his clothing. Newly available DNA testing could prove whether the spots were in fact victim’s blood.”
The Innocence Project says there are also hairs it wanted tested that “the state’s experts claimed that the hairs were ‘consistent’ with Lee’s based on microscopic examination – a forensic method that has since been discredited.”
According to The Arkansas Times, Lee’s attorneys “argued that they should be allowed to locate crime scene evidence collected in 1993, including a single hair and a Converse shoe with a pinhead-sized spot of human blood on it, for modern DNA testing. They hope testing can prove that the African-American hair found at the crime scene belongs to someone other than Lee, and that the speck of blood found on Lee’s shoe does not belong to the victim in the case.”
3. Lee Asked for His Last Meal to be a Communion Host After the Supreme Court, Including Gorsuch, Allowed the Execution to go Forward
The U.S. Supreme Court was asked to stay Lee’s execution but ultimately declined to do so. The Supreme Court decision to allow the state to execute Lee was 5-4, reports The New York Times, which said that Neil Gorsuch joined the majority, which did not explain its decision. Breyer, in a dissent, complained about the state’s rationale that it needed to execute the prisoners before a drug expiration date, the Times reported.
“The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear five last-minute appeals by Lee’s attorneys to stay his execution, which began at 11:44 p.m. CT (12:44 a.m. ET). Lee was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m,” reports NBC News.
Lee’s last meal request? Communion. “He declined to make a final statement, officials said. Three media witnesses reported that Lee remained under sedation during the procedure,” reported NBC News.
According to the New York Times, Lee received three drug injections: “midazolam, to render him unconscious; vecuronium bromide, to halt his breathing; and potassium chloride, to stop his heart.” The first drug is the subject of controversy after previous “botched” executions with it, The Times reports.
You can read U.S. Supreme Court documents in Lee’s case here.
He received communion but because the host and wine that came with it were not considered a “full meal,” the “Department of Correction offered to provide a meal on his behalf to the rest of the prison population. Lee declined,” NBC reports.
4. Reese’s Son Called Lee the ‘Embodiment of Evil’
Reese’ son has called Lee the “embodiment of evil that should never have to exist in this world,” reported THV. According to WZZM, Joseph Lucky “was a young child when his mother was murdered 24 years ago. To Lucky, his mother was everything to him. He has spent most of life hoping for justice and, most of all, closure for the death of his mother.”
“When she was ripped from my life it started spiral I almost didn’t recover from,” Lucky told WZZM, “and my family has lived in the shadow of this event our entire lives.”
The rapid pace of compressed executions the state wants to carry out would make it unique since at least 1976. According to The Chicago Tribune, “The state set the compressed schedule because its supply of one of the lethal injection drugs expires at the end of April” 2017.
The eight executions – almost one per day – “would have been the most by a state in such a compressed period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976,” reported ABC News.
The state hadn’t put anyone to death for a decade, according to The Huffington Post.
According to The New York Daily News, “Midazolam is a common sedative used typically by medical doctors. The drug is designed to sedate or relax the patient before undergoing minor surgical procedures,” and it has been used in executions since 2013 but there have been reports of inmates waking up.
A drug company has gone to court to try to halt the execution plan, and it initially won a critical ruling. The practical effect of an April 19 ruling was that it stopped the state’s plan to put all eight inmates to death. But then the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed that ruling, paving the way for Lee’s execution.
According to The Huffington Post, McKesson Corp, which supplied the drug pancuronium bromide to Arkansas, argued in court that the “state misleadingly obtained its product.”
Pancuronium bromide is step two in a “three-drug cocktail” the state uses to put inmates to death, paralyzing the prisoner, reported Huffington Post.
There was an odd twist. The week before, a different judge, Wendell Griffen, issued a similar ruling – saying the state couldn’t use the drug vecuronium bromide – “but the Arkansas Supreme Court vacated Griffen’s ruling days after he participated in an anti-death penalty rally,” ABC News reported.
In a statement, Griffen explained why he lay motionless on a cot in front of the Arkansas governor’s mansion:
The company claims that it was “led to believe that the order was placed at the request of or for the benefit of the licensed physical and would be used for a legitimate medical purpose… In fact (Arkansas) intended to use this product in connection with executions, a fact that was never disclosed to McKesson.”
5. Two Other Inmates Could be Executed on April 24 in the Speedy Execution Plan
Two inmates – Jack Jones and Marcell Williams – are scheduled to die on April 24.
According to the AP, Jones “was convicted of killing bookkeeper Mary Phillips in 1995 and trying to kill her daughter, Lacy, during a robbery at an accounting office. Phillips was found naked from the waist down with a cord from a nearby coffee pot tied around her neck. Lacy, left for dead, woke up as police photographed her.”
Lacy was only 11.
The attack was horrific. A court decision in the case contains graphic details. It says, in part: “When he (Jones) returned, Lacy, now crying, asked the man not to hurt her mother, to which he replied, ‘I’m not. I’m going to hurt you.’ He began to choke Lacy until she passed out. After Lacy lost consciousness, Jones struck her at least eight times in the head with the barrel of a BB gun, causing severe lacerations and multiple skull fractures. When Lacy woke up, she saw blood and began to vomit. She went back to sleep and awakened later when police, seeing her bloodied body and thinking she was dead, were taking photographs of her.”
Police found a gruesome scene: “Mary’s body nude from the waist down. A cord from a nearby Mr. Coffee pot was wrapped around her neck and wire was tied around her hands, which were positioned behind her back. Bruises on her arms and back indicated that she had struggled with her attacker prior to her death. According to autopsy results, Mary died from strangulation and blunt-force head injuries. Rectal swabs indicated that she had been anally raped before she was killed.” Jones confessed that “he had committed the crimes because he wanted to get revenge against the police. He reasoned that his wife had been raped, and that the police had done nothing about it.”
The other inmate scheduled to die on April 24 is Marcel Williams. He confessed to suffocating “a young mother of two after raping her” and abducting her when she stopped for gas, USA Today reports. Her name was Stacy Errickson.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson is a supporter of the multiple execution plan, and he thinks the court actions cause extra pain to the victims’ families in the cases.