Moments before his death warrant expired at midnight U.S. Central Time, after a last meal consisting only of communion, Ledell Lee was executed by the U.S. state of Arkansas.
Lee spent 24 years awaiting execution for the bludgeon murder of Debra Reese on February 9, 1993, but he was done to death in a rush that left unanswered some of the most fundamental questions in the case.
Trial is the forum designated for contesting this question, of course. At Lee’s, he was represented by an unwilling defense team that repeatedly sought its own removal from the case, citing an “intolerable conflict” with their client, a conflict that paled in comparison to that of the judge, who was having an affair with a prosecuting attorney. (Multiple separate rape cases were pending against Lee at the same time, and those same conflicting attorneys were removed from those cases.)
A quarter-century on death row suggests claims litigated to the point of exhaustion, but this is not how the death penalty game is played in America. The art of execution lies in expediting a conviction and then fighting hammer and tong to maintain that verdict as a fait accompli against any attempt on appeal to litigate issues that the jury never heard. Mostly, the clocks runs for years on useless waiting or epicycles of procedural do-overs that never reach the most salient topics. The Innocence Project reports that outright exonerees (not limited to condemned prisoners) serve an average of 14 years before winning release on their various evidentiary trump cards. (Arkansas’s most famous death row exoneree,* Damien Echols, waited 17 years.)
By the time one reaches the end of the glacial death penalty process, the very refusal of the law to probe the questions it never bothered asking will have become the fault of a prisoner’s own dilatory appeals, leading — in this instance — to victim’s kin at Lee’s clemency hearing “asking you and begging you to please let us have some closure.”
In the name of closure, end-state cases must also insist on renouncing one of the potential benefits of all that time-wasting, the perspective of passing years. DNA tests that were not available when Lee stood trial for his life — and the discredited “forensic evidence” of matching hair samples was invoked against him — could have been used to examine blood spots on Lee’s shoes.** Because the prisoner maintained his innocence in the case from the time he was arrested until the very end, one of his late appeals vainly implored Arkansas to test that DNA sample. There are many cases, death penalty and otherwise, meeting this description, and most U.S. jurisdictions compulsively resist any calls to revisit testable tissue in the light of emerging DNA science as so many affronts to the majesty of law.
So what has everyone been up to while not testing DNA all those years? The Fair Punishment Project report on Lee’s post-conviction road makes depressing reading.
Lee’s first state post-conviction attorney had substance abuse problems that left him “impaired to the point of unavailability on one or more days of the Rule 37 hearing.” The Arkansas Supreme Court noted several examples of his lawyer’s “troubling behavior,” including “being unable to locate the witness room;” “repeatedly being unable to understand questions posed by the trial court or objections raised by the prosecution;” “not being familiar with his own witnesses;” and “rambling incoherently, repeatedly interjecting ‘blah, blah, blah,’ into his statements.” Unsurprisingly, Ledell lost his state-post conviction petition. Eventually, the Arkansas Supreme Court recognized that Lee received grossly inadequate representation and withdrew its opinion, giving him new counsel.
Unfortunately, his new counsel were not much better. First, they missed the filing deadline for the appeal. Then, the Arkansas Supreme Court twice, sua sponte, ordered the attorneys to submit a new brief because their filings failed to comply with Court rules — the second time, the Court referred the attorneys to the Committee on Professional Conduct. The attorneys also appear to have refused to accept their client’s phone calls and ignored his letters.
At one point, Ledell received a glimmer of hope when the Arkansas court appointed the Arkansas Federal Defender to his case. They tried to litigate a claim that Ledell is intellectually disabled. In response, the state argued that Ledell — with all of his competent representation — had procedurally defaulted this claim by not raising it before.† But before the parties could complete litigation on the claim, the Federal Defender was removed due to a conflict.
In 2016, Ledell’s local habeas attorney moved to withdraw from the case because she was retiring. She made clear that in ten years, she had done little work on the case. “I have no file on [Ledell],” she stated, despite having argued at least one of Ledell’s appeals before the Eighth Circuit. “I have no working relationship with [Ledell]. I have not seen [him] for several years. I have no relationship with [his] present counsel and have not had any working relationship with them for some time.”
In June of 2016, one of Lee’s federal habeas lawyers, Gary Brotherton, voluntarily surrendered his legal license “to prevent possible harm to clients” because he was suffering from bipolar disorder with psychotic features and anxiety. One month later, the Missouri Supreme Court suspended him from the practice of law. So, just seven months ago, in the eleventh hour of his case, Ledell received yet another lawyer on his case.
All in all, a shambolic proceedings crowned by the indignity of Arkansas’s cramming Lee into a raft of eight proposed executions — many of them now stumbling on late appeals — slated together for the last days of April for the tawdry expedient of using up the state’s lethal injection drugs before their imminent expiry. It’s a very not normal situation, and yet, it is also all too normal.
Ledell Lee was the first person executed by Arkansas since 2005.
* As we’ve previously noted, Arkansas forced Echols to make an Alford plea as the price of his release, allowing it to claim on a technicality that it had not wrongfully imprisoned an innocent man for two decades.
** The crime scene was a bloodbath, so the supposition is that the murderer would certainly have imbrued his clothes with Reese’s blood.
† Reese’s alleged intellectual disability ought to have been raised by his unwilling defenders at the trial’s mitigation stage; it appears they barely investigated it.