Posthumous forensic testing of evidence in the case of Ledell Lee (pictured), who was executed in Arkansas in 2017, has found DNA from an unidentified male on a bloody club used to kill Debra Reese 29 years ago and on a blood-soaked shirt that was wrapped around the weapon. The DNA results, released by the Innocence Project and the ACLU on April 30, 2021, raise additional troubling questions about Lee’s conviction.

Lee, who consistently maintained his innocence of the crime, was executed on April 20, 2017. He was one of four men put to death in a span of eight days as Arkansas rushed to conduct executions before its lethal-injection drugs expired. The state scheduled eight executions over an eleven-day period, jamming the courts with execution-related litigation and impairing judicial review of the cases.

At the time of Lee’s 1995 trial, DNA testing techniques were unable to determine whether evidence from the scene implicated him. As technology improved, Lee sought new testing, including in a filing immediately before his execution. Another Arkansas man, Stacey Johnson, who was scheduled for execution the same night as Lee, was granted a stay on a nearly identical request for DNA testing.

After Lee was executed, his family, with the help of the ACLU and the Innocence Project, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking DNA testing of evidence from the case. Though prosecutors had opposed the request before Lee’s death, the City of Jacksonville, Arkansas now had custody of the evidence, and the city council unanimously granted the request. Jacksonville Mayor Bob Johnson said, “I look at it this way. If a gentleman was put to death and shouldn’t have been, that means there’s a murderer loose somewhere in Jacksonville or Arkansas or [the U.S.] and they need to be brought to justice.” He called the council’s decision “the right move.”

The tests found that the DNA on the murder weapon and bloody shirt did not belong to Lee, but it did not produce any matches in nationwide DNA databases. None of the fingerprints from the crime scene match Lee, but they also did not turn up any matches in a national database. Hairs from the scene were also tested. Five could not have come from Lee, and the sixth contained a mitochondrial DNA profile that did not exclude Lee, but according to the Innocence Project, “may be shared by thousands of individuals in a given population.” Results from trace amounts of DNA from one of Lee’s shoes were inconclusive, but did not exclude the victim, Debra Reese, as a potential contributor to the mixture. However, the tested area was negative for blood. Because the murderer was in close contact with the victim, a pathologist has attested that it would have been impossible for the killer to have little to no blood on the clothing and shoes he wore. All tests of Lee’s clothing to date have been negative for blood from the victim.

“While the results obtained 29 years after the evidence was collected proved to be incomplete and partial, it is notable that there are now new DNA profiles that were not available during the trial and post-conviction proceedings in Mr. Lee’s case,” Nina Morrison, Innocence Project senior litigation counsel, said in a statement. “We are hopeful that one or more of these forensic law enforcement databases will generate additional information in the future.” Lee’s sister, Patricia Young, said, “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.”

Numerous death-row prisoners have been denied potentially exculpatory DNA testing. Tennessee executed Sedley Alley in 2006 after refusing him access to evidence for DNA tests. His daughter is now seeking posthumous DNA testing and the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals heard argument on her request in February 2021. As of 2018, Florida courts had refused 70 requests for DNA testing from death-row prisoners. Georgia denied testing to three prisoners scheduled for execution in 2019 and 2020. Two were executed, while the third was granted clemency on separate grounds.