Arkansas Prisoners, Asserting Their Innocence, File Requests for DNA Testing

Two Arkansas death-row prisoners who are scheduled be executed on April 20 have asked the Arkansas courts to stay their executions to permit DNA testing in their cases. Stacey Johnson (pictured, l.) and Ledell Lee (pictured, r.) both say they did not commit the crimes for which they were sentenced to death, and both say that DNA testing methods not available at the time of their trials could prove their innocence. Stacey Johnson was convicted of the 1993 rape and murder of Carol Jean Heath. His conviction rested largely on testimony from the victim's 6-year-old daughter, but records obtained by the defense after the trial indicate that the girl told her therapist that she had not seen anything and was being pressured by her family to identify Johnson. Technology available at the time of Johnson's trial was not sensitive enough to provide DNA results from the sexual assault evidence collected from the victim's body, but newer methods may be able to rule out Johnson and even provide a match to an alternative suspect. At the trial, it was revealed that the victim's boyfriend had abused his former wife for four years, requiring her to obtain emergency custody of her children. It was also revealed that his abuse of his ex-wife included biting her breasts. Significantly, bite marks were identified on the victim’s breasts in Johnson's case. Bryce Benjet of the Innocence Project, which filed Johnson's request, said, "This is not some sort of last-minute, hail mary pass. Johnson asked for DNA testing in earlier appeals, but those requests were denied by State and federal courts. There have been revolutionary advancements in DNA testing since this case was initially investigated which could tell once and for all who actually committed this crime." In a separate filing, Ledell Lee sought new DNA testing of hair and blood evidence, neither of which provided conclusive results using 1995 techniques. Despite a bloody crime scene, no physical evidence directly implicated Lee in the murder. No fingerprint evidence from the scene matched Lee and no DNA evidence was presented to the jury. A state’s expert witness, however, testified at trial that he had found "Negroid head hair" at the scene and the state said there were small spots of blood on Lee's shoes. Lee's lawyers argue that "probative biological evidence currently in the custodian control of the state may now be able to provide—through the use of modern, cutting edge DNA testing technology—confirmation of the veracity of Mr. Lee’s innocence claim." Both defendants' requests have been denied by county judges, and have been appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. [UPDATE: The Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Stacey Johnson on the DNA issue, but denied Ledell Lee's motion for a stay. Arkansas executed Lee on April 20.]

(L. Millar, "Innocence Project asks Arkansas Supreme Court to grant stay for Stacey Johnson execution," Arkansas Times, April 18, 2017; B. Riddle, "Days before scheduled execution, Arkansas inmate's request for DNA testing denied," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 18, 2017; Press Release, "Innocence Project Asks Court to Grant DNA Testing in Case of Arkansas Man Scheduled to Be Executed on April 20, 2017," Innocence Project, April 13, 2017; Press Release, "Innocence Project Urges Arkansas Supreme Court to Stay Execution of Stacey Johnson and Grant DNA Testing that Could Prove Innocence," Innocence Project, April 18, 2017.) See Innocence. For updates, see Background on Arkansas April 2017 Executions