Since the U.S. Supreme Court gave its constitutional blessing to the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, the state of Arkansas has executed 30 males and 1 female. Thirty of those 31 executions were carried out by lethal injections with observers characterizing some of them as “horrible” and “cruel and unusual.”
Arkansas governors and the state’s corrections officials have demonstrated an affinity for carrying out multiple executions on the same day since it resumed the use of the death penalty in 1990. For example, Arkansas carried out triple executions on August 3, 1994 and January 8, 1997 while carrying double executions on May 11, 1994, September 8, 1999, and April 24, 2017.
Current Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson triggered international outrage after he tried to take executions to a horrific level during his first term in office by scheduling eight executions over an 11-day period in April 2017.
Arkansas Rushes to Execute 8 Men Before Lethal Injection Drugs Expire
Before being stopped by federal courts, Hutchison managed to send four men to their deaths over an eight day period between April 20, 2017 and April 27, 2017. The governor said the rush of execute was necessary because one of the drugs used in state’s lethal injection protocol—midazolam—was set to expire in April 2017 and correctional officials lacked the means to secure another viable supply of the drug.
The American Bar Association (“ABA”) dubbed the eight men “The Arkansas Eight.” The ABA, however, crystallized the actual reasons for Hutchinson’s rush to execute:
“This rush to execute eight individuals in such a compressed time frame resulted in an equally unprecedented amount of litigation over the course of roughly three weeks, ranging from suits filed on behalf of drug companies who did not want their drugs used in the executions, to suits challenging the state’s failure to follow its clemency procedures for the condemned individuals. As a result of the multiple lawsuits filed, Arkansas executed only four of the eight men initially slated for execution before the end of April. The four remaining men obtained stays of execution.”
The Death Penalty Information Center reports that it is most likely that 17 innocent men have been executed in this country since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976—nine in the state of Texas alone.
One of Executes “Arkansas Eight” Likely Innocent
Thanks to Gov. Hutchinson, an 18th name can be added to the innocent executed list—that of 51-year-old Ledell T. Lee, one of the “Arkansas Eight” who was put to death by Hutchinson and his prison officials at the state’s infamous prison Cummins Unit on April 20, 2017.
In a recent lawsuit filed by the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), the family of Ledell Lee is demanding that the Arkansas officials release fingerprint and DNA evidence that would prove the actual innocence of Lee. Lee’s sister, Patricia Young, told a news conference on January 23, 2020 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.”
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 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 to 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.”
State Blocked, Court Refused Testing of Potentially Exculpatory Evidence
The lawsuit pointed out that in February 2017, after a decade without any executions, Gov. Hutchinson selected Lee and seven other death row inmates for execution. Just days before Lee’s April 20th execution, attorneys for the ACLU and Innocence Project initiated an effort to obtain DNA testing of physical evidence. A federal district court, however, said Lee had “simply delayed too long” in seeking to have the physical evidence tested.
Undeterred, the Innocence Project and ACLU attorneys continued to investigate the Lee case and have compiled considerable evidence that, more likely than not, proves Gov. Hutchinson sent an innocent man to his death. The evidence the attorneys are seeking to have DNA tested is “scrapings” found under Ms. Reese’s fingernails and five fingerprints found in the Reese residence. The attorneys firmly believe, and have compiled compelling evidence to support their belief, that the DNA testing would prove beyond a doubt that Ledell Lee was innocent.
If the attorneys are correct, and the evidence is quite substantial that they are, it would mark the first time DNA evidence has exonerated an innocent person who has been executed in this country. This is significant because the Innocence Project reports that 21 death row inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence before the state could execute them and that another 146 have been exonerated by other means.
Arkansas Refused to Release Evidence for DNA Testing
Yet, despite the compelling evidence of Ledell Lee’s probable innocence, Arkansas officials are refusing to release the physical evidence in his case for DNA testing. These officials are covering up the very real likelihood that Gov. Hutchinson sent an innocent man to his death.
There are three underlying tragedies in the Ledell Lee case: (1) it is more likely than not that the African-American man was convicted and sentenced to death for the killing of a white woman because of the social and racial backlash caused by the O.J. Simpson acquittal; (2) Lee was one of the eight men—four African-American and four white—selected by Hutchinson for immediate execution in February 2017 because the state’s short supply of midazolam was about to expire; and (3) Lee was one of the three black men out of the four who were executed by the governor in April 2020. There is also a very real possibility that the actual murderer is still at large in the community, never to be held accountable for their crime.
In effect, historical Southern racism played a role in Lee getting the death sentence, in his selection for execution, and in the actual carrying out of his death sentence.
These kinds of racial tragedies stain the soul of this nation.