Four years after being executed for the 1983 murder of Debra Reese, Arkansas man Ledell Lee has been proved innocent thanks to DNA testing conducted by the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union. Throughout his 22 years on death row, Lee had maintained that he had been wrongfully convicted of his neighbor's murder.
In an interview with BBC published on April 19, 2017 – the day before the Arkansas prisoner died by lethal injection – Lee stated, "My dying words will always be, as it has been, 'I am an innocent man.'"
The Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) proved that the DNA on the murder weapon – which was never previously tested – actually belonged to another person. The new genetic material has been uploaded to a national criminal database to identify the true perpetrator, according to a New York Times article. After receiving a small snippet of hope for change, albeit far too late, Lee's sister Patricia Young said in a statement in early May, "We are glad there is new evidence in the national DNA database and remain hopeful that there will be further information uncovered in the future." Young had been fighting for her brother's justice for years, continuously attempting to prove that Ledell Lee was not the criminal who strangled 26-year-old Reese in 1993.
Previous requests for DNA testing by the Innocence Project and the ACLU, including one on the eve of the execution, had been denied. The 2017 execution was the state's first in a decade. Despite opposition from activist organizations involved in this case and evidence that the wrong person was executed, Governor Asa Hutchinson actually defended Lee's execution in a press conference on Tuesday, stating "It's my duty to carry out the law. The fact is that the jury found him guilty based on the information that they had."
This new escalation of events in a decades-long case proves that there is still work to be done within the United States criminal justice system, which cannot be ignored.