On February 9, 1993, 26-year-old Debra Reese was sexually assaulted and murdered in her own home. She was struck approximately 36 times with a tire thumper, a tool used by truck drivers to check their tire pressure. Her husband was a truck driver and had given her the tire thumper as a means of protection while he was on the road.
An hour after the murder, Jacksonville police arrested Ledell Lee in connection with Reese’s murder after witnesses claimed they saw him walking down the street that Reese’s house was on. After his arrest and even after his conviction, Lee reiterated his innocence.
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,” Luck admitted, “and my family has lived in the shadow of this event our entire lives.”
At Lee’s final clemency hearing, Lucky called Lee the “embodiment of evil that should never have to exist in this world.”
Lee has been called a super predator by prosecutors. After being charged with the murder of Reese, he became a suspect in other crimes. Lee was convicted for the rape of two Jacksonville women and was accused of the murder and rape of 22-year-old Christine Lewis.
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. When Lee received the death sentence for Reese’s murder, prosecutors decided not to pursue retrying him for the alleged murder of Lewis.
Lee’s lawyer, Lee Short, said Lee’s past trials would have looked differently if “he was to have attorneys that didn’t have a conflict.”
According to an Arkansas Supreme Court hearing, his lawyer was “so impaired by alcohol” during the first post-conviction trial that he had to be drug tested. Lee’s lawyer even admitted to being drunk during the post-conviction proceeding and exhibited compromised, bizarre behavior.
During the trial, the lawyer was at one point unable to locate the witness room and was not familiar with his own witnesses. At one point, the lawyer rambled incoherently, interjecting “blah, blah, blah” during his statements. His behavior became so worrisome that the State of Arkansas’s counsel even admitted that the lawyer was submitting the “same items of evidence over and over again.”
That lawyer was subsequently thrown out and new counsel was provided to Lee.
Though the state has painted Lee as a super predator throughout his convictions, Lee’s brother knows a very different man.
“He’s a great brother,” said Kevin Young. “He took me everywhere, taught me how to play basketball.”
While Young now lives out of state, he said he has kept in close contact with his brother and has stood by him and believes Lee is innocent. Young claimed that Lee has not been given a fair trial.
“We’re a praying family, so we’ve been hoping over the years that something would break and people would see that he’s innocent,” Young said.
As Lee’s execution date drew near, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Innocence Project filed new motions which they hoped would help him prove he did not commit the murder of Reese 24 years ago.
The ACLU asked for new post-conviction DNA testing in the case, and claimed that Lee’s intellectual disability stemming from fetal alcohol syndrome was “never noticed let alone brought to the court or the jury’s attention.” They asked that the court allow new DNA testing of a hair found at the scene and a drop of blood found on Lee’s shoe. Originally, the state’s experts said at the trial that the hairs matched Lee’s through microscopic examination. But both the ACLU and Innocence Project say that “forensic method” has now been discredited as non-factual and un-scientific.
“The testing available then wasn’t sophisticated enough for fragmented samples,” ACLU said in a statement, “and no other DNA evidence was found to tie him to the crime.”
However, Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Herbert Wright denied the motion, saying that even if the court allowed the testing and it proved neither the hair nor the blood tied Lee to the crime, “there would still be sufficient proof presented by the state at trial for the jury to reach a guilty verdict.”
That denial led to the Innocence Project joining the ACLU on the case. Both groups appealed the new DNA testing to the Arkansas Supreme Court and asked the court for a stay of Lee’s execution.
“The state is rushing to put him to death without giving him the opportunity to do the DNA testing that could prove who actually committed the crime,” said Nina Morrison, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project.
Despite these court battles, the family of Debra Reese hoped that his execution will go through as scheduled. And Lee’s family continued to fight until the last minute to prove his innocence. As for the State of Arkansas, they stayed the course, preparing to give Reese’s family the closure and peace of mind the law has promised.
Lee was executed on Thursday, April 20 at 11:56 p.m.