Convicted killer Ledell Lee didn’t utter a single word moments before a lethal drug cocktail was injected into his body Thursday night inside Arkansas’ Death Row chamber in Varner. Lee, convicted in the 1993 slaying of Debra Reese was asked twice if he had any last words as he lay strapped to a gurney. The 51-year-old remained stone-faced, and never made eye contact with Arkansas Department of Correction officials as they spoke the final words he would ever hear. This came hours after he refused to eat a final meal, and took communion instead. It wasn’t immediately known if he offered any condolences to the victim’s family, or expressed any remorse for what he’d done.
At 11:44 p.m. the drug cocktail began, after a slew of legal filings with the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court failed to compel judges to stay his execution. His attorneys’ arguments ranged from Lee’s alleged mental incompetence to whether or not the cocktail is humane. When his legal challenges were exhausted, Lee met his fate. He made no audible sounds, and from the vantage point of the witness room, he didn’t appear to be in any noticeable discomfort, media representative Sean Murphy said.
“The inmate appeared to lose consciousness quickly,” Murphy said.
At least 12 witnesses, two attorneys and several ADC officials viewed the execution from the witness room. A few minutes in, an ADC official rubbed Lee’s head and flicked his eyes to determine if he was incapacitated before potassium chloride, a heart stopping drug was pumped into his body. He didn’t show any signs he was awake. It wasn’t immediately known if any of Reese’s family members viewed the execution. Media members reported the room was silent during the almost 12 minutes it took Lee to die. He was officially pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m., about four minutes before his death warrant was set to expire.
“It is a very somber night for all Arkansans,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said through his Director of Communications J.R. Davis. “At the end of the night the right thing was done … the family of Debra Reese will have closure this evening.”
Reese’s family opted not to speak following Lee’s death. The family is expected to release a statement in the near future, according to ADC officials. Lee’s attorneys indicated they would meet with media members, but opted not too.
Lee’s death followed a tense night on the ADC campus just outside of the small town of Grady in southern Arkansas. He was originally slated to die at 7 p.m., but legal wranglings continuously pushed the time further into the night. As the witching hour approached, the designated media members were escorted to a staging area for the second time. At one point, there were at least six separate issues before the U.S. Supreme Court in Lee’s case, according to its Web site. He waited for hours in a holding cell adjacent to the chamber were his life would end before a new day began. The sensational move to execute so many prisoners in such a short amount of time lured throngs of media members from around the state and world.
Hutchinson had proposed to execute eight inmates during the final two weeks of April, a move without precedent in U.S. legal history, according to experts. The state’s supply of one of the drugs used is set to expire at the end of April, which prompted the rush. Arkansas hasn’t killed a Death Row inmate since 2005.
Four men tapped to be killed, Jason McGehee, Don Davis, Bruce Ward and Stacey Johnson, have had their executions postponed due to stays or injunctions filed by different courts in recent weeks. Johnson was slated to die before Lee on Thursday night. The Arkansas Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a stay for the execution of Johnson. In a 4-3, decision, the Arkansas high court ruled that Johnson has the right to a full evidentiary hearing on his request for DNA testing to prove his innocence.
Protesters gathered outside the Cummins Unit, on the ADC grounds in Varner. Early in the afternoon, the protests were light, but protests became more intense as Lee’s appointed execution hour approached, according to reports. Paul Cates, communications director for the Innocence Project which works to free wrongly accused inmates, issued a statement condemning the process.
“Ledell Lee proclaimed his innocence from the day of his arrest until the night of his execution twenty-four years later,” Cates said. “Arkansas’s decision to rush through the execution of Mr. Lee just because its supply of lethal drugs are expiring at the end of the month denied him the opportunity to conduct DNA testing that could have proven his innocence. While reasonable people can disagree on whether death is an appropriate form of punishment, no one should be executed when there is a possibility that person is innocent.”
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge was pleased the state was finally able to administer justice in the case. Lee was originally convicted in 1995.
“Tonight the lawful sentence of a jury which has been upheld by the courts through decades of challenges has been carried out. The family of the late Debra Reese, who was brutally murdered with a tire thumper after being targeted because she was home alone, has waited more than 24 years to see justice done. I pray this lawful execution helps bring closure for the Reese family.”
The executions of Lee was part of what was originally an order by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to execute eight inmates between April 17 and April 27. The original execution schedule was:
• April 17: Don Davis, Bruce Ward;
• April 20: Stacey Johnson, Ledelle Lee;
• April 24: Marcel Williams, Jack Jones; and
• April 27: Jason McGehee, Kenneth Williams.
LEDELL LEE BACKGROUND
Debra Reese was curling her hair mid-morning at her home on Cherry Street in Jacksonville on Feb. 9, 1993, when there was a knock at the door. A stranger wanted to borrow some tools. Reese, 26, only had a tire tool her husband left to protect her when he was out of town. She told the man she didn’t have any tools.
She called her mother who lived only five houses away. Reese was scared. She told her mother, Katherine Williams, that she “didn’t trust this guy.” Reese promised her mother she would come to her house once she was done curling her hair.
Reese never talked to her mother again.
The stranger, Ledell Lee, returned and broke into Reese’s home moments later. A neighbor, Andy Gomez watched Lee enter the home, and leave about 20 minutes later. In the interim, Lee took the tire iron and struck Reese 36 times. He stole $300 from her purse. He had just been released from jail on a burglary charge.
Gomez was suspicious and tailed Lee when he left the Reese house. He used the stolen money to pay several debts that afternoon, including one owed to a nearby Rent-A-Center. Lee was arrested and charged with capital murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
Lee had been previously convicted on two separate rape charges, and may have been involved in the murder of a Jacksonville-area prostitute whose body was dumped in a shed next to some railroad tracks. He is also the prime suspect in the abduction, rape, and murder of 22-year-old Christine Lewis in November 1989 in Jacksonville. Lewis was in her home when Lee broke in and abducted her. Lewis’s 3-year-old child watched as the abduction took place. Her body was found days later in the closet of an abandoned house. She had been raped and strangled.
DNA linked Lee to the rapes and murders. Prosecutors declined to pursue murder charges in the Lewis case after the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed his death sentence in the Reese case.
Arkansas has three more executions slated for next week. Jones and Marcel Williams are slated to die Monday. Kenneth Williams’s execution is scheduled for Thursday. Jones has previously said he won’t accept any form of clemency and is ready to die.