Two groups are suing a central Arkansas city and seeking the release of evidence they say could exonerate an inmate who was executed nearly three years ago.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Innocence Project asked a state judge to force Jacksonville authorities to release fingerprint tests and DNA they say supports claims convicted murderer Ledell Lee was innocent of the 1993 murder of Debra Reese.
Lee maintained his innocence from the time of his arrest until his execution.
The groups filed the lawsuit on behalf of Patricia Young, Lee's sister.
In response to the lawsuit, the City of Jacksonville's city attorney Stephanie Friedman said that the city is "prevented from releasing DNA physical evidence" according to state law.
"Lee's DNA physical evidence is not a public record and is not open to public inspection," Friedman said. "Additionally, should the City release this evidence, there is the possibility that the evidence would be destroyed, further violating evidence retention laws."
Lee was the first of four inmates Arkansas executed in 2017 before its supply of a lethal injection drug expired.
The ACLU and Innocence Project joined his case days before he was executed by Arkansas, but were unable to get new testing before his scheduled execution.
The groups at that time identified "serious flaws in the evidence used to convict Lee" and DNA evidence that reportedly belonged to the killer, but was never tested with modern technology.
According to court documents filed Thursday, attorneys for Lee's family say "no physical evidence directly tied Mr. Lee to the murder of Ms. Reese."
The lawyers say that crime scene evidence shows that "whoever killed Ms. Reese was not wearing Ledell Lee's shoes or clothing." They also say that the shoe pattern on Reese's cheek does not match the pattern of Lee's shoes.
Reese was sexually assaulted and murdered in her own home on the morning of Feb. 9, 1993. Police say she was approximately hit "36 times with a tire thumper."
Lee was arrested about an hour after the murder after witnesses claimed they saw him walking down the street. He was arrested at his mother's house and Lee's brother told police that the two went to make a payment at a Rent-A-Center store "shortly before noon."
In April of 2017, a Pulaski County Circuit Court judge denied a motion set forth by the ACLU, which asked for new DNA testing for Ledell Lee’s case.
If the new testing is granted and concludes that Lee was not responsible for Reese's murder, it would be the first time an innocent man was executed under Arkansans's modern death penalty.
AP author: Andrew DeMillo