Grady, Ark. – More than 24 years after Inmate #000936 committed the murder that put him on a path to destruction, media witnesses came out of the Varner death chamber Thursday with the report that it took only 12 minutes for Ledell Lee to die.
There were no reprieves. No last-minute stays from a newly seated U.S. Supreme Court. No botches.
At exactly 12 a.m. (midnight), a non-emotional Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves walked into a prison visitors’ room-turned media center and matter-of-factly pronounced Lee dead.
“Just a few moments ago, ADC Director Wendy Kelley read the following statement in the execution chamber: ‘A lethal injection was administered at 11:44 p.m. and the coroner pronounced Ledell Lee dead at 11:56 p.m. this 20th day of April, carrying out the sentence of the Circuit Court of Pulaski County, Arkansas, on a charge of capital murder tried in that court by duly impaneled jury, convicted and sentenced to death such sentence was entered on Oct, 16, 1995,’” Graves read.
Prior to the lethal injection, Graves said Lee twice refused to make a statement after he was strapped to the gurney. Earlier, the condemned prisoner rejected a last meal, but asked for communion instead. According to the ADC’s inmate bio on the death-row inmate, Lee lived 51 years, 8 months and 21 days. More than half of those years was spent behind bars.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, in a pen-and-paper press conference with reporters at the Governor’s Mansion a week ago, called Lee’s crimes “heinous.” At the time, a roomful of reporters sat quietly and uncomfortably as he read the graphic details of the incident over 24 years ago that led to this fateful day. In part, Hutchinson read that Lee was convicted of killing Jacksonville resident Debra Reese on March 24, 1997. The 26-year old murder victim was found brutally murdered in her home in Jacksonville on Feb. 9, 1993. She had been beaten some thirty-six times with a tire thumper, a tool resembling a baseball bat that her husband Billy, a truck driver, had given to her for protection while he was away.
Reese’s family refused to talk with reporters following Lee’s death in early hours of Friday morning. They plan at some point in the near future to make a statement, ADC officials said. Attorneys for Lee, among the dozen or so witnesses of the execution, also quickly exited the compound after Lee quietly died on the executioner’s table.
Media representatives who witnessed Lee’s execution – John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sean Murphy of the Associated Press and Marine Glisovic of KATV Channel 7 – offered an almost sanitized description of the death scene. Murphy, who has witnessed 13 executions, described Lee’s death as if he went to sleep.
“He appeared to lose consciously very quickly and in a matter of minutes, his eyes closed …,” said Murphy who witness the much-publicized 43-minute “botched execution” of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett three years ago.
Afterward, the dozens of reporters who had waited for nearly eight hours at the ADC’s maximum security Cummins Unit in Grady, Ark., quickly began to send out news stories to media outlets across the globe with headlines stating that Lee was the first Arkansas inmate to be executed since 2005.
But that was not supposed to be Lee’s epitaph. Three other death-row inmates were scheduled to die before him. On Feb. 23, Gov. Hutchinson garnered international attention when he announced eight inmates would be executed over a stretch of 11 days in an otherwise uneventful period after the recess of the 91st Arkansas General Assembly, where the governor had successfully pushed his entire political agenda through the legislature.
However, the governor’s plan went partly off track on Monday, when fellow death-row inmates Don Davis and Bruce Ward were the first scheduled to die. Ward’s death sentence was first halted by the Arkansas Supreme Court due to his mental condition. Davis’ date with death was called off later that night at 11:44 p.m., the exact time that the executioner on Thursday began the three-drug cocktail that would cause Lee’s death.
After a flurry of court filings in between the execution dates, Lee’s death sentence was moved to 7 p.m. on Thursday after his death-row mate Stacey Johnson received a last-minute stay from the Arkansas high court earlier in the day. And after 23 hours had passed Thursday, reporters were already preparing substitute headlines that Lee would be the fourth Arkansas inmate to escape the executioner’s needle.
But not this time.
A divided Supreme Court, by a vote of 5-4, decided less than an hour before midnight to allow Lee’s execution to move forward. The high court’s newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, sided with the majority to lift all stays on Lee’s sentence, and he was swiftly prepared for the execution chamber some 30 minutes before the governor’s death warrant was to set to expire.
J.R. Davis, Hutchinson’s spokesman who expressed frustration and some pent-up anger when Monday’s executions were halted, offered softer words early Friday morning on behalf of the governor immediately after Lee was pronounced dead.
“Tonight is a very somber night for all Arkansans. The governor knows this is the most grave responsibility he will ever have and he takes that very seriously,” he said. “It is a moment of reflection, but at the end of the night the right thing was done.”
Four days from now, death-row inmates Jack Jones and Marcell Williams are scheduled to die at 7 p.m. Between now and then, attorneys for those prisoners will likely flood state and federal courts with lawsuits to halt their executions and Arkansas will continue to be ground zero for the ongoing debate on the future of capital punishment in America.