In a January 28, 2020 post titled “Is Arkansas Governor Responsible for Execution of Innocent Man,” we pointed to the fact that Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has a bloodthirsty penchant for the death penalty, sent four men to their deaths between April 20 and April 27, 2017. The Governor had initially scheduled eight men to die during that month before a federal court intervened to shut down his state killing machine.
One of the men Gov. Hutchinson executed was Lydell Lee, who had maintained his innocence throughout his arrest and trial process. Lee continued his protest of innocence during all his post-conviction years, through the last day of his life, trying to have his conviction set aside. Those pleas were ignored by both the prosecutors, courts, and Gov. Hutchinson.
ACLU Files Post-Mortem Lawsuit
Nearly three years after Lee’s execution, the ACLU, the Innocence Project, and two private law firms acting pro bono filed an 80-page lawsuit seeking the release of fingerprint and DNA evidence they said might establish Lydell Lee’s actual innocence. When the lawsuit was filed, Patricia Young, Lee’s sister, told a news conference that, “We just want to know the truth. If science can get to the truth, we hope the court will allow the testing so justice can be found.”
It was too late for the truth to save her brother, but evidence of his wrongful execution might prevent another innocent person from being put to death by the Razorback state.
Lee was convicted and sentenced to death for the February 9, 1993 killing of Debra Reese inside her Jacksonville, Arkansas home. Lee reportedly struck Reese 36 times with a tire tool given to her by her husband for self-protection. The DNA lawsuit, filed in the circuit court of Pulaski County, Arkansas under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, charged:
“No physical evidence directly tied Mr. Lee to the murder of Ms. Reese. Instead, the State convicted Mr. Lee by vastly overstating the nature and significance of the limited forensic testing conducted at that time, including tests that its own experts admitted were ultimately ‘inconclusive.’ The State also relied heavily on alleged identifications of Mr. Lee by neighborhood eyewitnesses, even though that testimony contained notable inconsistencies in the witnesses’ description of the perpetrator.
“Despite the grisly and high-profile nature of Ms. Reese’s murder, the State had to put Mr. Lee on trial twice before convicting him. At Mr. Lee’s first trial, the defense presented testimony from both acquaintances and family members who swore to his whereabouts during the extremely narrow window of time in which the murder occurred. Mr. Lee’s alibi was also supported by time-stamped records from a local furniture rental store where Mr. Lee, accompanied by his brother, made a partial payment on the same day Ms. Reese was killed. The first trial resulted in a hung jury on the issue of guilt, but the State tried Mr. Lee a second time. The defense inexplicably called no alibi witnesses at the second trial, nor did it impeach the store clerk with his earlier testimony indicating the likely time of Mr. Lee’s transaction, which, if correct, would have provided Mr. Lee with a complete alibi for the murder. Mr. Lee’s second trial for the murder of Ms. Reese also began just one week after O.J. Simpson’s October 1995 acquittal—perhaps the most closely-watched murder trial in recent American history, which ended in a verdict that polarized many American along racial lines. This time, the State obtained both a conviction and a death sentence of Mr. Lee—a Black man accused of murdering a white woman.”
DNA of Unknown Male on Murder Weapon
Four years, almost to the day after Lee was executed, the DNA test results were released. The results made several significant conclusions:
- Lee’s blood was not on the murder weapon.
- His blood was not on a bloody shirt found at the crime scene.
- The DNA of an “unknown male” was found on the murder weapon.
These conclusions point to someone else as the killer of Debra Reese. While Nina Morrison, an attorney for the Innocence Project, said the DNA testing “proved to be incomplete and partial,” the Washington Post reported that the attorney “framed the discovery as significant and leaving the door open for more findings down the road in a case that relied largely on eyewitness testimony.”
Lee’s sister put it this way in a statement cited by the Post: “We are glad there is new evidence in the national DNA database and remain hopeful that there will ever further information uncovered in the future.”
Eye Witness Testimony Historically Unreliable
The Lydell Lee case calls into question the credibility of eyewitness testimony.
Recently the results of research led by Dr. Rebecca Helm with the University of Exeter Law School into more than “250 miscarriages of justice” over a 50-year period between 1970 and 2016 in England and Wales in which researchers found that 41 percent (107 cases) of the 250 cases involved “unreliable witness testimony.”
In a May 4, 2021 report, The Crime Report cited a more recent study that found as many “as 50 percent of eyewitness identifications” based on police lineups may be inaccurate.
Lydell Lee was convicted and executed based almost exclusively on bits and pieces of the most unreliable, although admissible evidence allowed in a court of law: witness testimony.
In the Lee case, we choose to believe the logical conclusion reached by DNA test(evidence of an “unknown male”) over the fingers pointed at Lee. It is a fact that Lee’s DNA was not on the bloody murder weapon and that the DNA of that “unknown male” was. Assuming proper collection and testing methods, DNA evidence can be very reliable; the pointed finger, either in a skewed police lineup or under oath from a witness chair, is wrong more times than correct.
And that is why we believe that it is more probable than not that Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson did execute an innocent man. The Governor, prosecutors, and judge involved in this injustice are now scrambling to secure political cover using legal mumbo-jumbo. These empty words will not bring Mr. Lee back to life or help his family deal with his unjust execution.