Innocence Project files suit against Jacksonville, Ark.

Alleged wrongful execution

Isabell Rivera OW Contributor | 7/9/2020, midnight

The Innocence Project and its partners announced that they will sue the city of Jacksonville, Ark. for wrongfully executing an innocent African-American man and refusing to allow DNA testing.

The case of Ledell Lee saddened and infuriated many activists and opponents of capital punishment and the treatment of African-Americans in the criminal justice system.

Before his execution, Lee filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court to allow enough time for DNA testing, to prove his innocence after the emergency stay motion filed by the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was denied.

“It is inappropriate for the state to rush to execute before a defendant’s innocence claim can be properly examined. All we are asking for is a hearing on Mr. Lee’s claim that modern DNA testing can prove his innocence. The federal court must now step in to ensure that Arkansas does not put an innocent man to death,” said Nina Morrison, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project in 2017. “Serious questions remain in Mr. Lee’s case and in several of the other cases scheduled for Arkansas’ back-to-back executions. It is vitally important that each of these men has a meaningful chance to present these claims in court before any execution proceeds.”

The verdict

Lee was sentenced to death in 1993 and executed on April 20, 2017, 24 years after he was accused of the murder and sexual assualt of Debra Reese.

Since his arrest, he maintained his innocence.

Although the Innocence Project and the ACLU were unable to extend the stay of execution, they didn’t quit the case. Instead, while Lee was still alive, they investigated the found evidence and collected new evidence that was overlooked. However, local officials still denied the request for DNA testing. Therefore, in collaboration with the law firm Hogan Lovells US LLP, the ACLU, the ACLU of Arkansas, and Little Rock attorney John Tull, the Innocence Project filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on behalf of Lee’s sister, Patricia Young.

The Process

On Jan. 31, the City of Jacksonville consented to proceed with a DNA testing and fingerprint evidence regarding Lee’s case.

According to the Innocence Project, 167 innocent people have been exonerated from death row over the last 44 years. But an estimated 4 percent of defendants sentenced to death are wrongfully convicted. Over 20 of those people have been freed with the use of DNA testing, such as the one requested in Lee’s case.

The case

There was no evidence found to link Lee with the murder of Reese. It was also admitted by the prosecution’s own experts that the results of some of the forensic tests were said to be “inconclusive” at Lee’s trial, yet the prosecution blew up the importance of the test results, which led to Lee’s conviction. Another important aspect during Lee’s trial is the fact that the state argued that hairs from the crime scene were said to be “microscopically consistent” with Lee’s hair, based on a “visual examination” conducted by the prosecutions’ experts. However, this forensic method has since been discontinued, due to unreliable results. The prosecution claimed at the trial that two small spots resembling “human blood” on Lee’s shoes, were possibly the victim’s blood. Although despite the extreme loss of blood at the crime scene, no other traces of blood were found anywhere on Lee’s shoes, or any of his clothing.