Ledell Lee, convicted of murder and executed in 2017, maintained his innocence for more than two decades on death row.
Now lawyers with the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union say new DNA evidence found on a decades-old murder weapon, never previously tested, points to a different man.
The new evidence was found after Ledell Lee's family and lawyers sued the city of Jacksonville, AR, seeking to have old evidence tested and analyzed. Lee's sister has spent years trying to exonerate her brother and has continued her fight even after he was executed by lethal injection. The development marks a rare attempt to use DNA evidence to prove a person's innocence after their death.
Prosecutors say Lee used a tire thumper to bludgeon the victim to death inside her home.
The DNA results "proved to be incomplete and partial" a lawyer with the Innocence Project said.
Justice Antonin Scalia and the death penalty
"Mere factual innocence is no reason not to carry out a death sentence properly reached." -- Herrera v. Collins 506 US 390 1993
The new testing found DNA evidence from an unknown man on the club's bloody handle and both samples seem to belong to the same man, who was not Lee.
The prosecution's case relied heavily on eyewitness testimony and both the Innocence Project and ACLU had previously pressed for more DNA testing following Lee's conviction. A request for new analysis on the eve of Lee's execution was denied.
Many criticized the state of Arkansas for rushing Lee's execution and several others during an 11-day period in 2017 as the state's supply of lethal injection drugs was on the verge of expiring.
Arkansas' governor defended Lee's execution saying it had been his "duty to carry out the execution". The state's attorney general also defended the execution saying "The courts consistently rejected Ledell Lee's frivolous claims because the evidence demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that he murdered the victim".
....except for the DNA evidence and the lack of fingerprints. inJusticebusters.org
The lawsuit also pushed the city to, for the first time, compare fingerprints found at the crime scene to a national fingerprint database. Lee's fingerprints did not match any found at the scene. Lawyers fighting on behalf of Lee have also claimed witnesses were given a "shockingly" biased photo lineup.