When journalist Jaide Garcia arrived at the Cummins Unit around 3 p.m. on Thursday, it was hot and sticky. Inside the prison at that same time, convicted killer Ledell Lee only had a little more than eight hours to live.
He refused a final, personal meal. He took communion instead. Moments later he ate bread, chicken, rice, pinto beans, cinnamon rolls, and drank a little bit of fruit punch from a standard issue prison food tray.
Media members, up to a hundred, caravanned from the main highway to the Arkansas Department of Correction campus. Garcia, 26 and working for a major media outlet, flew in to Little Rock earlier in the day. She’s driven through Arkansas a few times on her way back to her native California. She was now in south Arkansas at Varner, a blip on the map between two small towns, Grady and Gould. She’d done extensive research on Arkansas’ attempt to kill eight death row inmates in 11 days. Now she was there to cover the first execution in the state in almost 12 years.
As Garcia made her way to the media staging room inside a prison mess hall, Lee took a final shower. He dressed in all white clothes, and headed for a holding cell next to the death chamber. He huddled with his attorneys, hoping to receive a reprieve from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, or the U.S. Supreme Court.
At 7 p.m., Lee was slated to die.
A clock inside the media room slowly churned toward the appointed hour. Whenever a state official appeared and walked to a podium erected at the front of the room, media members dashed. Camera crews filmed, photographers snapped, shots, and writers took notes. When the death hour came, the dull roar in the room turned into silence. The two high courts issued stays until at least 8:30 p.m., and the waiting game renewed.
The hours ticked by. Darkness soon enveloped the prison complex. The gray, lifeless walls became a little darker. Journalists huddled in groups, exchanging jokes and notes. A film crew from the BBC interviewed different people in the room, and filmed some of the conversations for a documentary the agency is producing about the death penalty. One journalist quipped this might be the only time in history that the U.S. Supreme Court held a direct grip on Arkansas. The statement was true. Newly appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch’s first decisions on the high court would be the fates of death row inmates in Arkansas.
Garcia hopes to become an international correspondent or producer. As the myriad of temporary stays and injunctions came, she openly wondered how the death penalty system operates. Lee spent many hours that night, not knowing when the end would come, if it would come at all, she said.
“There has to be a better way of doing this,” she said. “We should have a system … that is more dignified and orderly.”
By 10 p.m., many of the veteran journalists in the room, confident earlier in the day that Lee would die, now began to think he might have a chance to survive. Three media members, who volunteered to view the executions, remained in the room, a sign that the executions might not take place. Toward the back of the room, a row of tables sat with pastries, water, fruit punch, and coffee. People gathered at the tables to snack and talk. Underneath the table, a large insect scampered about. Above this scene on the wall, the clock continued its unabated march.
Around 11 p.m., the media witnesses were escorted to a staging area. It was at this time Lee and his legal team learned his stays had expired, and no injunction was forthcoming. The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision, decided to allow the execution to move forward. Gorsuch cast the deciding vote.
THE DEATH OF DEBRA REESE
Lee, convicted in the 1993 beating death of Debra Reese, was escorted to the death chamber. He killed Reese in her Jacksonville home because he needed $300 to pay off a debt to a local Rent-A-Center. He has also been connected to at least two other murders and two other rape cases by DNA evidence. 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.
NO FINAL WORDS FROM LEE
A spokesman notified the press Lee’s execution was imminent. He was strapped to a gurney and IVs were placed in his arms. Two phone calls were made to make sure there were not more legal entanglements. With the law satisfied, Lee was asked not once, but twice if he had any final words.
His gaze remained straight forward. He never made eye contact with his questioner. Lee didn’t publicly apologize for the heinous murder and other crimes he committed. He offered no condolences to the grieving families. At 11:45 p.m. a toxic drug cocktail began to flow into his veins. At 11:56 he was pronounced dead. During his execution, he showed no visible signs of pain.
Garcia knows Lee was convicted of diabolical acts. But, through the course of research a broader picture of him emerged. Many family members came forward, claiming he was abused and uncared for as a child. His mother was an alcoholic, and he may have suffered from fetal-alcohol syndrome. The affects of solitary confinement in prison had taken a toll. While none of that condones his actions, it provides context to how Lee became a convicted killer.
“He became a human to me,” Garcia said.
Arkansas is slated to execute two more inmates on Monday. Convicted killers Jack Jones Jr. and Marcel Williams will play the same waiting game Lee played. Garcia doesn’t know if she’ll be tapped to cover the next round of executions, but she hopes so.
“I was happy that I was the one coming … I was glad I was asked to come. I hope I get sent again,” she said.