Ledell Lee was likely innocent when Arkansas executed him in April 2017, says a lawsuit that calls on authorities to release evidence that could prove it.
Lee was the first person executed in Arkansas in more than a decade. He also was the first in a string of executions the state planned to carry out in days to use lethal-injection drugs before they expired.
Lee maintained his innocence until the end, says the lawsuit, which asks the court to order the city of Jacksonville and its police department to release DNA samples and fingerprints to be tested and run through national databases.
“My family has been unable to rest for the last two and a half years, knowing that my brother was murdered by the state of Arkansas for a crime we believe he did not commit,” Patricia Young, the plaintiff and Lee’s sister, said in a statement from the ACLU.
What happened to the murder victim, Debra Reese, was “horrible,” Young said. “But I was with Ledell the day this murder happened, and I do not see how he could have done this.”
The ACLU and The Innocence Project filed the suit Thursday on behalf of Lee’s family in Pulaski County Circuit Court. Defendants are the city of Jacksonville, its mayor, and its police department, which investigated Reese’s 1993 murder and arrested Mitchell.
The evidence should be released because it’s considered public record under the Freedom of Information Act, the lawsuit says.
Jacksonville City Attorney Stephanie Freedman rejects that argument.
She provided CNN with an email she sent to the mayor and city council members explaining that Lee’s “DNA physical evidence is not a public record and is not open to public inspection.”
“Additionally,” the email said, “should the City release this evidence, there is the possibility that the evidence would be destroyed, further violating evidence retention laws.”
CNN has reached out to the Jacksonville Police Department and the mayor’s office for comment.
‘All we want is to finally learn the truth’
Lee was convicted of capital murder in 1995.
Reese, 26, was found dead in February 1993, strangled and beaten with a small wooden bat. Several of Reese’s neighbors told police they saw Lee nearby, but the lawsuit says those descriptions contained “notable inconsistencies.”
“No physical evidence directly tied Mr. Lee to the murder of Ms. Reese,” the lawsuit says. Evidence was also “misinterpreted” at trial, it says, citing recent reviews by forensic experts.
ACLU and the Innocence Project attorneys joined Lee’s defense team shortly before his execution, and they’ve continued to investigate since then.
Lee told the BBC, “You are about to murder an innocent man.” A last-minute play to halt the process failed when the US Supreme Court denied multiple requests for stays of execution.
He was killed April 20, 2017, after taking his last meal: Holy Communion. Lee was the first of several inmates executed in a few days. Arkansas officials initially planned to kill eight men in 11 days.
The lawsuit hopes to prompt the release of evidence. First are hairs taken from the bedroom where Reese’s murder took place, which expert testimony indicated belonged to a black person.
There’s also scrapings taken from beneath Reese’s fingernails, which the ACLU said is “highly likely to contain her murderer’s DNA,” and five fingerprints from the murder scene.
The lawsuit includes an admission by Lee’s post-conviction counsel that he was struggling with substance abuse and lacked the proper resources at the time he represented Lee. As a result, investigation for Lee’s defense was inadequate.
“Since Ledell’s execution, we have discovered a wealth of new evidence supporting his claim of innocence,” Nina Morrison, senior litigation counsel at the Innocence Project, said in a statement. “All of this evidence should have been presented to the courts while Ledell was still alive, but it wasn’t because he couldn’t afford a quality defense.
“The lack of thoroughness in Ledell’s investigation helps explain how that happens, and we hope the Court will allow us to finally uncover the truth.”
Lee’s sister, Young, said, “If Ledell is innocent, then the person who did this has never been caught. All we want is to finally learn the truth.”
CNN’s Amanda Watts contributed to this report.