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Rush of Arkansas executions that included Ledell Lee's comes under renewed scrutiny

"This case with Lee is just the latest, most vivid and maybe most tragic example of what happens when you rush to execute," one death penalty expert said.

In 2017, the state of Arkansas announced a frenzied pace of executions — planning eight in 11 days — beginning with Ledell Lee, who insisted until his death by lethal injection that "I am an innocent man" in the 1993 murder of his neighbor.

The scheduled back-to-back executions brought the national debate over capital punishment to Arkansas, where no had been put to death in more than a decade, and revived an outcry over the use of a sedative known as midazolam, which had been tied to a botched execution in Oklahoma in 2014.

The unprecedented rush to execute so many death row inmates was necessary, the state said, because its supply of midazolam was set to expire that month.

But four years later, Lee's case and the circumstances that led to his execution face new scrutiny after lawyers working on behalf of his family said last week that DNA testing of the murder weapon showed another man's genetic material.

Ledell Lee appeared in Pulaski County Circuit Court in April 2017. Benjamin Krain / AP

The resurfacing of doubts about Lee's guilt should be a warning to officials who may try to hurry executions, particularly under controversial conditions, and it highlights the shifting public opinion toward capital punishment — even as states begin putting people to death after a lull, criminal justice experts, activists and death penalty researchers say.

"This case with Lee is just the latest, most vivid and maybe most tragic example of what happens when you rush to execute," Austin Sarat, a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said Monday.

In Lee's case, the handle of a bloodied wooden club and a white shirt wrapped around the weapon had never been tested before, lawyers with the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union told The Washington Post. While the testing could not conclusively rule out Lee, the genetic profile is being run through a national criminal database in the hope that a match can be confirmed, the lawyers said.

The potential failures and flaws in the criminal justice system during trials and sentencing and in the execution process itself are a "perfect storm" that is only compounded by underlying racial factors and a "rush to execute because a drug is going to expire," said Sarat, the author of "Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty."

Research shows that for about every eight people executed in the U.S., one person on death row has been exonerated and released, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center.

"I think it is unquestionable that people who are innocent have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated back in the 1970s," he said.

Damien Echols, an ex-death row inmate in Arkansas, said he shared a prison cell next to Lee for two years. Echols was one of the West Memphis Three — three teenagers convicted in the murders of three young boys in 1993, a case that drew national attention after the teens fought to clear their names. Echols was released in 2011 because of new DNA evidence.

He said Lee never stopped proclaiming his innocence in the death of Debra Reese and was hopeful that he would avoid the death chamber.

"He really did believe that, somehow, some way, this information was going to come out before it got to this point," Echols said Sunday on MSNBC.

"I believe the state would have murdered me and swept it under the rug, and it would have been business as usual," he added.

Since 1973, more than 1,500 people on death row have been executed, while at least 185 people awaiting execution have been exonerated and freed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Attorneys for Lee's family say a "wealth of new evidence supporting his claim of innocence" has been discovered since his execution, and that they wanted to conduct testing on hairs from the bedroom, scrapings from Reese's fingernails and on fingerprints from the scene. They maintain that such evidence should have been presented in the courts while he appealed but that he "couldn't afford a quality defense."

Reese, 26, was found strangled and beaten to death in her home in Jacksonville, a suburb of Little Rock. A neighbor testified that he saw Lee enter and leave Reese's home the day she was killed, and another neighbor said Lee once came to him asking for tools, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

Prosecutors suggested that Lee was seeking out women who were home alone, and authorities said human blood was found in Lee's sneakers.

The first trial ended in a hung jury after the jurors heard from alibi witnesses who said Lee could not have committed the crime, according to the Innocence Project. But no alibi witnesses were called in his second trial.

When asked last week about the latest DNA developments in Lee's case, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who took office in 2015, said the initial case and the appeals had been reviewed by the courts at "every level."

"It is my duty to carry out the law," he said in a statement Monday to NBC News. "The recently discovered evidence is inconclusive and regretfully leads to speculation."

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, said the evidence "demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that he murdered Debra Reese by beating her to death inside her home with a tire thumper."

"After 20 years, I am prayerful that Debra's family has had closure following his lawful execution in 2017," Rutledge said in a statement last week.

In further comments Monday, she stood by the state's handling of the execution cases, which included numerous lawsuits and legal proceedings.

"The courts consistently upheld the inmates' convictions, death sentences and Arkansas' method of execution," Rutledge said. "It is our hope and prayer that justice was achieved for the citizens of Arkansas and certainly for the families and loved ones of the victims in these cases."

But Dunham said Arkansas' reasoning to push ahead with the executions because its midazolam supply was set to expire "was an artificially compressed time frame." At the time, medical suppliers said they would no longer give states the drug to use in executions, setting up a legal battle between the state and those facing execution.

Four of the eight death row inmates scheduled to die in April 2017 were executed. The state Supreme Court stayed the executions of three others, and Hutchinson commuted the sentence of the eighth person to life in prison.

Dunham said that local lawyers were overwhelmed handling all of the execution cases and that Lee's defense in a case that deserved more scrutiny suffered.

"When you have those artificially rushed executions, the first casualty is truth," Dunham said.

He said the spree of federal executions that began last summer during the Trump administration raised similar questions about the use of the death penalty in a short period.

The Justice Department, citing the need for justice for victims of crimes, ramped up executions after a 17-year hiatus on the federal level. The federal government put 13 people to death — despite objections that holding executions was an unnecessary risk during a pandemic. It conducted the last one just five days before President Joe Biden was inaugurated.

Biden campaigned on passing legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level. A 2019 Gallup poll found that for the first time, most Americans agreed that life in prison with no parole is a better punishment than the death penalty.

On the state level, executions have been delayed during the pandemic. Texas, which conducted the last one in July, plans to resume executions on May 19, and it has four others scheduled this year.

Dunham said other states, "emboldened by what the Trump administration did," appear ready to hold executions. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, notified the state Supreme Court that he will seek execution warrants in two cases, which would be the first executions in the state since 2014. He has said he wants to "ensure" that the 21 people on Arizona's death row whose appeals have been exhausted are executed before his term ends in 2023.

"There are crimes that are so terrible, so heinous that we as a society, only by carrying out executions, demonstrate how serious we think those crimes really are," he told local media.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in Las Vegas plan to put a convicted killer to death by lethal injection this summer in what would be Nevada's first execution since 2006.

This month, the South Carolina House voted to add death by firing squad to the state's execution methods because of a lack of lethal injection drugs, The Associated Press reported. Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, has said he would sign the bill. The last execution in the state was in 2011, and a lack of lethal injection drugs and an increase in plea deals have driven down the state's death row population.

Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen of Pulaski County, Arkansas, where Lee and Reese lived, blamed the pace of executions on a "concerted effort for bloodlust" by elected officials, who he says are looking to score political points with crime-concerned voters.

Griffen, who plans to retire next year, has been outspoken about his objection to the death penalty, and the state Supreme Court prohibited him in 2017 from handling execution cases after he blocked Arkansas from using a lethal injection drug on the same day he attended an anti-death penalty rally. Republican legislators accused him of judicial misconduct.

If Lee's case could show anything, Griffen said, it is that the effort to bring closure and justice to victims is not compatible with a system that can put the wrong person to death without consequences.

"There's nothing just about a system that allows that possibility of error, and you can't create closure by killing somebody who factually may not have been responsible for murder," Griffen said. "Ledell Lee was crying out for the evidence to be tested, and that didn't happen before he was killed."