Convicted murderer Ledell Lee was executed shortly before midnight Thursday in Arkansas, making him the first prisoner to die under an expedited timetable before a key lethal-injection drug expires at the end of the month.
Lee, 51, who had long maintained his innocence in the 1993 murder of 26-year-old Debra Reese, also became the first inmate executed in Arkansas since 2005.
The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the execution by rejecting five appeals filed by Lee’s attorneys, which bought the inmate several additional hours. He had been originally scheduled to die at 7 p.m.
Lee took communion as his last meal at 4 p.m. and refused any other food, according to the Arkansas Department of Correction.
“Tonight the lawful sentence of a jury which has been upheld by the courts through decades of challenges has been carried out,” said Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
“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,” Ms. Rutledge said.
One of Ms. Reese’s two children, Joseph Lucky, said at Lee’s final clemency hearing in March that the family has had to live with “the shadow of this event our entire lives, and I’m asking you and begging you to please let us have some closure.”
“Ledell Lee showed no leniency to any of the victims he encountered,” said Mr. Lucky on KATV-TV in Little Rock. “He is the embodiment of the kind of evil that should never exist in this world.”
Ms. Rutledge fought off a slew of legal challenges filed by the inmate’s attorneys with the Innocence Project as well as the drug manufacturer that provided Arkansas with midazolam, a sedative in the state’s three-drug lethal-injection protocol.
So far Lee has been the only inmate to be executed under the state’s April 17-27 timetable, even though eight men had originally been slated to die during that 11-day period.
The Arkansas Supreme Court granted stays of execution to three of the four other inmates facing execution this week under the schedule, issued Feb. 27 by Gov. Asa Hutchinson with the state’s supply of midazolam set to expire April 30.
The governor’s order was released days after the conclusion of a 12-year legal battle over the Arkansas death penalty. The state has been unable to procure additional supplies of midazolam as a result of pharmaceutical companies increasingly refusing to provide drugs to be used in executions.
His attorneys had filed challenges calling for additional DNA testing of evidence found at the scene and arguing that the judicial system had “completely failed” Lee, who was represented at one point by a lawyer who showed up drunk in court.
“Mr. Lee has fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, significant brain damage and significant intellectual disability — important defenses to the death penalty that his lawyers failed to litigate,” said a Thursday statement by the Innocence Project.
The project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law in New York City, obtained Wednesday a stay of execution on behalf of Stacey Eugene Johnson, who had been scheduled to be put to death Thursday immediately before Lee.
Two other death row inmates — Bruce Ward and Don Davis — won stays of execution from the Arkansas Supreme Court in order to await the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case on whether defendants are entitled to mental-health evaluations made independently of the prosecution.
A fourth inmate, Jason McGehee, was granted a delay in order to allow for a 30-day comment period after the state parole board recommended clemency earlier this month.
Lee’s execution was the first under the state’s lethal-injection protocol, under which the condemned inmate is given midazolam, a sedative, followed by vecuronium bromide, a paralytic, and finally potassium chloride, used to induce heart attacks.
Foes of the process have argued that a prisoner could remain conscious during the procedure, while an Arkansas prison official confirmed before the Lee execution that checks would be conducted to ensure that the inmate is insensate after the midazolam is administered, the Associated Press reported.
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