GRADY — Arkansas had not carried out the death penalty since 2005, but that changed on Thursday when Ledell Lee was executed for the murder of Debra Reese of Jacksonville.
Lee was convicted in 1995 of Reese’s 1993 killing, and for the next 22 years Lee’s case made its way through the legal system until he was declared dead at 11:56 p.m. Thursday.
The state used a three-drug cocktail to carry out Lee’s execution at the Department of Correction’s Cummins Unit near Grady.
The first drug administered was the sedative midazolam, which was administered at 11:44 p.m., said Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves. It was followed by the paralytic vecuronium bromide, with the final drug being potassium chloride, which stopped Lee’s heart.
Sean Murphy, a reporter with The Associated Press and one of the three media witnesses to the execution, said that a few minutes after the first drug was administered, Lee’s eyes began to droop and then close. At 11:49 p.m., Murphy said, a consciousness check was performed and Lee’s sternum was rubbed.
At 11:55 p.m., Lee was checked for a heartbeat and then the coroner was called and death was declared a minute later.
Before the injections, Murphy said Wendy Kelly, director of the Department of Correction, asked Lee twice if he would like to make a final statement, and Lee did not respond either time.
Reese’s family was also present and witnessed the execution. They also declined to make a statement on Thursday but Graves said they would release a written statement in the following days.
J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, also made a statement and said it was a, “very somber night” and “the (Reese) family will go to sleep with justice.”
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement, “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.”
Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project who along with the American Civil Liberties Union represented Lee, said in a statement, “Ledell Lee proclaimed his innocence from the day of his arrest until the night of his execution 24 years later. During that time, hundreds of innocent people have been freed from our nation’s prisons and death rows by DNA evidence. It is hard to understand how the same government that uses DNA to prosecute crimes every day could execute Mr. Lee without allowing him a simple DNA test.”
Morrison noted that when the Arkansas Supreme Court denied a stay of Lee’s execution today to allow time for DNA testing of evidence in his case, Justice Josephine Hart said in a dissenting opinion that DNA testing was in the interest of justice and that she did not understand why the court treated Lee differently from Stacy Eugene Johnson, whose execution the court did stay for DNA testing.
Murphy and two other media witnesses, John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and KATV Channel 7’s Marine Gilsovic, were taken to the death chamber at 11 p.m. although at that time officials were still waiting for word from the U.S. Supreme Court as to whether the execution proceed.
Lee, 51, had originally been scheduled for death at 7 p.m., but his attorneys filed multiple last-minute motions seeking to block his execution. The nation’s highest court denied every motion.
Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court did not rule until after 11 p.m. Monday on whether the state could execute Don William Davis. In that case the state upheld a stay of execution.
The state originally planned to execute Lee and Johnson on Thursday night, but after the state Supreme Court stayed Johnson’s execution and denied a request by Rutledge to reconsider that decision, Rutledge chose not to pursue an immediate appeal.
Hutchinson originally scheduled four double executions over an 11-day span in April, but the state has had to cancel the execution dates for Jason McGehee, Bruce Earl Ward, Davis and now Johnson because of court stays. The governor is seeking to make use of the state’s supply of midazolam before it expires at the end of the month.
Graves told reporters Lee received his last meal at 4 p.m. Thursday.
“For his last meal, he asked for communion and was given communion,” Graves said.
He added that Lee was given the option of receiving the same meal as those in general population at the prison, but “all he wanted was communion.”
Graves wasn’t sure who administered the communion.
Lee “brutally murdered” Reese according to court documents in the case and was beaten with a tire thumper, a tool that looks like a baseball bat that was given to her by her truck driver husband Billy for protection while he was away.
In addition to being beaten, she was also strangled.
The state’s theory was Lee, “had searched the victim’s neighborhood until he found the perfect target for his crime.”
Jacksonville police believe Lee may have had a hand in at least two other murders in their city. Carolyn Johnson was killed and her body was dumped near the railroad tracks. Jerry Johnson, a retired police detective at the department, said, “It got into the newspapers that she was a prostitute but that wasn’t the case.”
Johnson served as the lead detective on the Reese killing as well.
The other murder Lee has been linked to is the killing of Jacksonville’s Christine Lewis, who was abducted from her home in November 1989 and as her son, then 3, watched.
Lewis, the daughter of then-City Alderman Robert Lewis, was raped, strangled and dumped in an abandoned home.
Graves didn’t know if anyone from the Lewis family witnessed the execution live or on close-circuit television.
Lee also was convicted of the rapes of a Jacksonville woman and a Jacksonville teenager. He received sentences of 60 years and life in those cases.
At the time of Reese’s murder, Lee was out on parole for a felony theft conviction.
The Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty held a vigil Thursday night outside the Governor’s Mansion. Participants held lit candles or signs with anti-death penalty slogans.
“It never has made sense to me that we kill people who kill people to show people that killing people is wrong,” said Judith Elane of Little Rock.
All of the state’s execution plans were temporarily put on hold Wednesday when Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray issued her injunction at the request of medical supply company McKesson Medical-Surgical, which is alleging that the state used deception to obtain vecuronium bromide from it, under the pretense that the drug would be used for medical purposes and not for executions.
Gray did not rule Wednesday on the merits of McKesson’s claim.
The state Supreme Court stayed Gray’s injunction without comment. The court’s order did not mention any dissent.
Next week, Arkansas plans to execute Jack Harold Jones and Marcel Wayne Williams on Monday and Kenneth Williams on Thursday.
Arkansas News Bureau reporter John Lyon in Little Rock contributed to this report.