Leader Blues

Monday, May 11, 2009

TOP STORY >> Lee’s appeal rejected, case in federal court

Leader editor-in-chief

A Jacksonville death-row inmate who went on a crime spree in the late 1980s and early 1990s lost an appeal Thursday before the state’s highest court.

The Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Ledell Lee, 43, who was sentenced to die for the Feb. 9, 1993, beating and strangling death of Debra Reese, 26, in the Sunnyside addition, where he had attacked several other women.

Lee had argued that his lawyers didn’t present witnesses he wanted at a hearing, had conflicts of interest regarding his case and failed to hire a death-penalty expert to advise them.

His case is now in federal court, where the attorney general’s office is defending his conviction.

When Lee exhausts his federal appeals, Gov. Mike Beebe is expected to set an execution date for Lee.

He was also convicted of raping two Jacksonville women and was tried for the murder of Christine Lewis, the daughter of the late Alderman Robert Lewis. Lee was also suspected of killing a Jacksonville prostitute and dumping her body in a shed near the railroad tracks.

Lewis, 22, was abducted from her Sunnyside home in November 1989 as her 3-year-old child watched. She was raped and strangled and her body dumped in the closet of an abandoned home.

The jury could not agree on a verdict in that trial, but prosecutors decided not to retry him when he received the death sentence in the Reese case and was convicted for raping two women. DNA evidence tied Lee to the murders and rapes.

Reese was struck 36 times with a tire tool her husband gave her for protection while he was out of town on a truck driving job. Lee, who had just been paroled after serving time for burglary, was arrested an hour after the murder when witnesses reported seeing him walking the street.

A 1994 trial resulted in mistrial when it was discovered that a relative of Lee’s was on the jury. In 1995, a prosecutor offered a chilling description of Lee as a multiple rapist who hunted victims in Jacksonville.

Lee’s lawyer asked the jury to consider “who are we then to say” when someone dies.

The prosecutor later replied: “I will tell you who we are — we are the hunted.’’

The jury deliberated two hours before agreeing to the death sentence.

In an opinion Thursday, Justice Robert L. Brown noted that Lee’s lawyer later testified that he didn’t hear the prosecutor’s remarks. Though the remarks likely were inflammatory, Brown said they wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the case.

“The jury ... heard testimony of the violent nature of the Reese murder during the penalty phase and also heard testimony that Lee had raped three different women,” Brown wrote.

In dismissing Lee’s other points, Brown wrote that defense lawyers are allowed to use their discretion in deciding which witnesses to present in a case. Brown said there wasn’t any convincing evidence that hiring a specialist for his case would have changed its outcome.

Brown also said Lee 0didn’t show that his lawyers failed him by not asking for an independent analysis of DNA samples. At a later hearing, Brown noted his lawyer said he didn’t think anyone other than the FBI could conduct such tests in the early ’90s.

Lee’s appeal is one of a series he’s filed since his sentencing. Previously, Lee won a rehearing on a portion of his case after showing his lawyer suffered from substance abuse problems and likely was intoxicated during one portion of his trial.

However, other appeals over victim’s impact statements and other issues pertaining to his trial have failed.

Lee is being held at the state’s Varner Unit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.