LATEST: Arkansas executions — April 20 updates
THURSDAY, APRIL 20
12:48 a.m. » Execution of death-row inmate gives victim's family closure, official says; witness describes lethal injection
The death of a condemned man executed in the final minutes of Thursday will finally give the victim's family some closure after decades of waiting, said Gov. Asa Hutchinson's spokesman J.R. Davis.
After a series of failed court challenges, Ledell Lee was put to death by lethal injection at the Cummins Unit in Grady and became the first inmate executed in Arkansas since 2005. Lee, sentenced to death for the 1993 killing of Debra Reese in Jacksonville, was the first to die of eight inmates whose executions were scheduled by the state to take place over 11 days in April.
Before he was put to death, Lee was strapped to a gurney in the execution chamber at his head and by his arms, Associated Press reporter Sean Murphy told reporters. The three chosen media witnesses along with about a dozen other people watched the execution from a viewing room with four windows, he said.
Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley reportedly asked Lee if he had any last words, and he did not respond. She asked again, and Lee did not appear to make eye contact with her, Murphy said.
The lethal injection began around 11:45, though reporters could not see exactly when the drugs started to flow. Lee “appeared to lose consciousness very quickly,” Murphy said. His eyes drooped, then closed “within a matter of minutes,” he said.
A member of the execution team performed a consciousness check at 11:49 p.m. by flicking Lee's eyelids, shaking his head and rubbing his sternum, at which point the inmate did not appear to be conscious, the Associated Press reporter said.
Another check was performed at 11:55 p.m., when the official also listened for a heartbeat, Murphy said. At that point, the coroner was called in and pronounced Lee dead at 11:56 p.m.
Kelley then entered the chamber and ran through the course of events. Then, black curtains closed on the windows in the viewing room, and the witnesses exited. The group remained silent for the duration of the lethal injection, Murphy said.
The governor, through a spokesman, called tonight a “very somber night” for all of Arkansas.
“At the end of the night, the right thing was done,” Davis said while addressing reporters from the podium.
Davis said the Department of Correction staff carried out their responsibilities extremely well, but, more importantly, he said, Reese's family will go to sleep with some closure.
It's “the first time they've been able to say that since 1993,” Davis said.
Reese's family declined to speak to the media after the execution and said through prisons spokesman Solomon Graves that they will issue a written statement at a later date.
Lee's lawyers also left the prison before issuing a statement.
12:34 a.m. » Innocence Project attorney says 'hard to understand' why death-row inmate denied DNA test before execution
A lawyer who helped represent death-row inmate Ledell Lee says it's "hard to understand" why he was denied "a simple DNA test" before his execution Thursday night.
Innocence Project senior staff attorney Nina Morrison wrote in a statement that "Arkansas’s decision to rush through the execution of Mr. Lee just because its supply of lethal drugs are expiring at the end of the month denied him the opportunity to conduct DNA testing that could have proven his innocence."
Morrison, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, represented Lee's in seeking the DNA testing.
After a series of challenges to the U.S. Supreme Court failed, he was put to death by lethal injection Thursday night.
GRADY — After a series of challenges to the U.S. Supreme Court failed, Ledell Lee was put to death by lethal injection Thursday night in the first execution in Arkansas since 2005.
Lee, who was sentenced to death in 1995 for the killing two years earlier of Debra Reese in Jacksonville, was the first to die of eight inmates whose executions were scheduled over 11 days this month.
Three others whose deaths were scheduled before Lee — Bruce Earl Ward, Don Davis and Stacey Johnson — had their lethal injections halted through court challenges.
Lee pursued multiple appeals in the hours before his death, and while some resulted in temporary stays that pushed his lethal injection past its original 7 p.m. scheduled start time, none spared his life before the death warrant expired at midnight.
Lee was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m., 12 minutes after the execution process began. He was 51.
Lee did not make a final statement.
On Feb. 9, 1993, Lee bludgeoned Reese to death with a tire iron that her husband had given her as a form of protection.
Lee was arrested within an hour of Reese's death after some of the cash taken from her wallet was used to pay a bill at a Rent-A-Center store.
Reese's family declined to speak to reporters after the execution and said they would release a written statement later.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge noted that the family "has waited more than 24 years to see justice done."
"I pray this lawful execution helps bring closure for the Reese family,” Rutledge said.
Three other executions are scheduled for next week.
A spokesman for the Arkansas prison system said the state is set to begin the execution of Ledell Lee.
Solomon Graves told reporters gathered at the Cummins Unit in Grady that officials were ready to "begin the process of carrying out the sentence."
He would not answer specifics and said he would return to the media center when the execution is complete.
He reiterated the department is "ready to carry out the sentence" but would not say how long the process will take or if the witnesses are already in place.
A spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the governor received the call at the Capitol and is expected to remain there until Lee is dead. The Department of Correction will call Hutchinson to tell him.
The U.S. Supreme Court has denied all of Ledell Lee's motions for emergency stays, clearing the way for his execution to continue.
In orders issued shortly before 11:30 p.m., the nation's high court denied all five requests before it seeking to stop the proceeding. 📄 Click here to read the five orders.
J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, speaks with Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter John Moritz Thursday.
GRADY — A spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that no one expected all eight Arkansas death-row inmates scheduled to be executed this month to be put to death.
J.R. Davis, speaking while inmate Ledell Lee's attorneys sought an emergency stay for his execution, said the governor understood "that not all eight would be carried out" and that "there would be a chance that they would run into litigation and a blockade."
Lee's execution, originally set for 7 p.m., hinges on decisions before the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices were said to be considering five claims.
Three other death-row inmates' executions were stayed earlier this week shortly before their scheduled deaths.
Despite the stays, Davis defended Hutchinson's decision to set all eight executions in an 11-day time span. He noted that the governor reviewed all the cases to be "100 percent sure of the guilt."
"You set [the executions] because you expect them to be carried out," he said, adding failing to set the dates would effectively "stop the process."
When the Supreme Court makes its ruling, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge will be notified, Davis said. She will in turn call Hutchinson, who will alert the director of the Department of Correction. She will then commence the execution process.
— Arkansas Online
9:17 p.m. » Appeals court rejects final requests for stays
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected all challenges before it from condemned inmate Ledell Lee ahead of his scheduled execution Thursday night.
The court in an order shortly after 9 p.m. upheld a federal judge who denied a request from Lee to have his lethal injection halted while evidence from his criminal case is released for DNA testing.
A spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said at 9:15 p.m. that all issues before the appeals court had been exhausted with no stays issued.
A federal appeals panel has rejected an inmate's request to stop his execution, set for Thursday night, as Arkansas aims to put an inmate to death for the first time since 2005.
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Ledell Lee's request for a stay. Lee's attorneys had argued that he has a likely intellectual disability that has never been properly evaluated.
The Court of Appeals also denied a request for a stay based upon an earlier denial of funds sought to prepare for Lee's clemency bid "and potential additional litigation." Click here to read that filing.
Lee was initially set for execution at 7 p.m. Thursday, but the appeals court delayed that until 9:15 p.m. as it considered his case.
Earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals in two unrelated cases that would have stopped Lee's execution, but he has other appeals pending with the high court.
Arkansas had scheduled eight executions over an 11-day period before the end of April, when its supply of one lethal injection drug expires. The first three executions were canceled because of court decisions. Legal rulings have put at least one other in doubt.
8:15 p.m. » Death-row inmate files multiple requests for stays with U.S. Supreme Court; multiple delays ordered
Condemned inmate Ledell Lee's execution has been delayed by two different courts — but not for long.
A new stay issued by the U.S. Supreme Court blocks his lethal injection until 8:30 p.m. A separate stay issued by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals blocks the execution until 9:15 p.m.
The Supreme Court order came minutes after Lee filed with the nation's high court five emergency applications seeking a stay of his execution.
The emergency applications for stays include a challenge to lower court decisions on the way Arkansas handled its clemency process and one arguing that Lee is "intellectually disabled" and shouldn't be put to death.
In three orders Thursday night, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to stop the execution of an Arkansas inmate set to die this evening.
The orders from the nation’s high court mean the execution of Ledell Lee can go forward if a stay issued by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals expires at 8:15 p.m.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an 8th Circuit decision to throw out a federal judge's stay in a case challenging Arkansas' lethal injection protocol. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying the appeals court "erroneously swept aside" the judge's determination that one of the drugs used in the executions — midazolam — "creates a substantial risk of severe pain."
"I continue to harbor significant doubts about the wisdom of imposing the perverse requirement that inmates offer alternative methods for their own executions," she added.
The appeals court delayed Lee’s 7 p.m. scheduled execution for an hour and 15 minutes while it considered an appeal of a case he brought seeking more time to examine DNA evidence in his case.
Solomon Graves, prisons spokesman, speaks on the phone Thursday at the Cummins Unit media center. Photo by Emma Pettit.
GRADY — The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals delayed the execution of an Arkansas death-row inmate by an hour and 15 minutes just before he was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection Thursday night.
The appeals court halted the proceedings until 8:15 p.m. as officials were preparing to execute Ledell Lee, who was sentenced to die in 1995 for the killing two years earlier of Debra Reese in Jacksonville.
The court delayed the execution to consider a claim filed by Lee seeking more time to test DNA evidence. A federal judge denied that claim, and the appeals court issued the stay while it considers the appeal.
Details on the last-minute, temporary stay weren’t immediately known. A prisons spokesman at the Cummins Unit confirmed the stay and said it delayed the death until 8:15 p.m.
—Arkansas Democrat-Gazette staff
The state has asked a U.S. district court to allow convicted murderer Ledell Lee's execution to continue tonight.
Lee's attorneys filed the civil-rights suit less than an hour before Lee is set to die at 7 p.m.
In her response, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge wrote: "Plaintiff himself has had ample opportunity to bring this constitutional challenge in multiple proceedings that were initiated earlier than hours before his scheduled execution."
Attorneys for an Arkansas inmate scheduled to die within an hour have filed a last-minute civil-rights lawsuit seeking more time to prove his innocence.
The 74-page complaint was filed Thursday by lawyers with the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It is inappropriate for the state to rush to execute before a defendant’s innocence claim can be properly examined,” said Nina Morrison, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, in a statement shortly before 6 p.m.
Morrison said “serious questions” remain in the 1993 killing of Debra Reese, adding that it is “vitally important” that Lee has a chance to present his claims in court.
Earlier Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court denied Lee’s emergency motion for an immediate stay of his execution.
The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has denied an appeal from Arkansas death-row inmates seeking a preliminary injunction.
The inmates appealed the denial of their motions for a stay of their executions on the basis that the Arkansas Parole Board violated a number of statutes, thus violating their due process rights.
“We conclude that the [U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas] was correct in determining that, despite the procedural shortcomings in the clemency process, the inmates received the minimal due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment,” the court wrote.
— Brandon Riddle
McKesson Corp., which had challenged Arkansas' use of its vecuronium bromide in lethal injections, will not appeal the state Supreme Court ruling allowing the drug to be used in executions.
"We believe we have done all we can do at this time to recover our product," the company had said in a statement. "We are disappointed that the Arkansas Supreme Court has held our favorable injunction ruling in abeyance and delayed further scheduling in our case."
A condemned man set to be executed Thursday chose to receive Communion as his last meal, officials said.
Convicted murderer Ledell Lee told prison officials at the Cummins Unit in Grady that he would like to be given communion rather than any specific spread of food before his scheduled lethal injection at 7 p.m., spokesman Solomon Graves said from the prison during a media briefing. Death-row inmates about to be executed have the option of requesting their last meal.
Lee received communion around 4 p.m., Graves said. He was then given the option of eating the meal the rest of the prison population ate that evening, but he abstained, Graves said. He did eat earlier Thursday, Graves noted.
Graves said he did not know what denomination of faith Lee is other than Christian and was unsure of who delivered the religious ritual.
Lee's execution time was originally scheduled for 8:15 p.m. but was moved up to 7 p.m. He is one of the eight executions originally scheduled by Arkansas to take place over 11 days at the end of April before the state's supply of midazolam, one of three lethal injection drugs, expires.
Lee was convicted in the February 1993 beating death of 26-year-old Debra Reese, who was reportedly bludgeoned to death in her Jacksonville home with a tire iron. He was sentenced to death Oct. 16, 1995, and was first scheduled to be executed in February of the following year.
Graves also said during the news conference that media witnessed will be selected at 6 p.m. Three reporters will witness the lethal injection — one from a wire service, one from print news and one from digital or television news.
— Emma Pettit
5:39 p.m. » State Supreme Court denies inmate's requests to halt lethal injection hours before scheduled execution
An Arkansas inmate set to die in less than two hours has lost two of his remaining efforts to stay alive.
In formal orders, the Arkansas Supreme Court denied requests for a stay from convicted murderer Ledell Lee.
In one, Lee’s attorney had filed a 117-page memorandum asking the state’s high court to address his claim that he may be intellectually disabled and ineligible for the death penalty.
Attorney Lee Short noted that his client “has deficits in intellectual functioning, brain injury, fetal alcohol syndrome disorder and adaptive deficits.”
The state contended that Lee could only claim that he had an intellectual disability at trial, even if he had insufficient counsel.
“Nothing changed with respect to Mr. Lee’s intellectual disability between his 1995 trial and today. The only change was counsel,” Short wrote.
The second denial related to Lee's request for additional DNA testing of evidence related to the 1993 killing of Debra Reese at her Jacksonville home.
Lee filed a petition Monday for post-conviction DNA testing, arguing that advanced techniques have been made available since his conviction. That request was denied Tuesday in Pulaski County Court and then appealed to the state's high court.
— Brandon Riddle
Arkansas says one of two executions scheduled for Thursday night won't go ahead.
The Arkansas attorney general's office says it won't appeal an order halting the execution of Stacey Johnson.
The decision by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to not appeal Johnson's stay leaves only one inmate facing execution Thursday night. The state Supreme Court has denied two stay requests from Ledell Lee, but his attorneys are fighting on other fronts in state and federal court to halt his execution.
Arkansas had scheduled eight executions over an 11-day period before the end of April, when its supply of another lethal injection drug expires. The first two executions were canceled because of court decisions. Legal rulings have put some of the others in doubt.
— The Associated Press
4:50 p.m. » State's high court declines to reconsider stay of 1 Arkansas death-row inmate's execution
The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon upheld a stay for one of two death-row inmates scheduled to die tonight.
Earlier in the day, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge had asked the state's high court to reconsider its Wednesday order, which halted Stacey Johnson's death.
The stay had been granted for Johnson so he could continue addressing his request for additional DNA testing in an effort to prove his innocence in the beating, strangling and killing of Carol Heath at her De Queen home in April 1993.
The Arkansas Supreme Court has allowed the use of one of three lethal injection drugs needed to carry out executions.
That ruling on a request from Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge means that the scheduled death of convicted murderer Ledell Lee can move forward.
Solomon Graves, spokesman for the state prison agency, says Lee's execution time has been moved up to 7 p.m. Thursday. He was originally scheduled for 8:15 p.m.
The inmate originally set to die at 7 p.m., Stacey Johnson, was granted a stay on a request for additional DNA test that his attorney say could prove his innocence.
The attorney general filed a motion earlier Thursday seeking an immediate stay of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray’s injunction banning the use of vecuronium bromide on the grounds that the supplier could suffer “irreparable harm.”
Lee was convicted in the February 1993 death of Debra Reese, who was reportedly bludgeoned to death in her Jacksonville home with a tire iron that had been given to her by her husband as a form of protection.
— Brandon Riddle
Two pharmaceutical companies that have said they don't want their drugs used in Arkansas' executions are asking to intervene in the court fight over whether the state can use a third lethal injection drug.
Fresenius Kabi USA and West-Ward Pharmaceuticals Corp. asked Thursday to file a friend of the court brief urging the court to uphold an order preventing Arkansas from using its supply of vecuronium bromide, one of three drugs used in the lethal injection process. A supplier has said it sold the drug to Arkansas to be used for medical purposes, not executions.
The companies have said they believe they manufactured the other two drugs Arkansas has for the executions, which are set for Thursday night.
Arkansas had scheduled eight executions over an 11-day period before the end of April, when its supply of one lethal injection drug expires. The first two executions were canceled because of court decisions. Legal rulings have put the others in doubt.
— The Associated Press
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge on Thursday asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to reconsider an order it issued a day earlier halting the execution of Stacey Johnson.
The state's top court issued the stay so Johnson can pursue his requests for enhanced DNA testing in hopes of proving his innocence in the 1993 rape and killing of Carol Heath.
In the filing seeking reconsideration Thursday, Rutledge noted the same court in 2006 denied a request for additional testing and said previously administered tests established "beyond doubt" that he is the killer.
"The victims of those who have been viciously murdered in Arkansas, and the State who proceeds on their behalf and on behalf of the public, deserve at a minimum a reasoned explanation as to why the Court has now, ten years later, and on the eve of Johnson’s execution entirely reversed its prior position," Rutledge wrote.
The filing describes Johnson as a "confessed, convicted murderer who over twenty years ago nearly
decapitated his victim in front of her 6-year-old daughter."
Johnson is scheduled to be executed Thursday night, though his lethal injection is currently halted both by the Arkansas Supreme Court's stay and an order issued in Pulaski County barring Arkansas from using one of its three execution drugs. Rutledge has also appealed that ruling.
— Staff and wire report
The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday denied one of death-row inmate Ledell Lee's motions seeking a stay of his execution.
Lee's motion argued ineffective postconviction counsel, but the state's high court ruled that that alone is not cause for a stay.
Other appeals by Lee are pending.
Lee is scheduled to be executed Thursday night, though an order barring the state from using one of the drugs in its lethal injection protocol has effectively halted it. Arkansas is appealing that order, however.
— Gavin Lesnick
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has filed an emergency motion for an immediate stay of a Pulaski County judge’s injunction banning the use of vecuronium bromide in executions.
“The state requires extremely expedited handling of this matter because the injunction entered below bars both the early-afternoon mixing and evening use of a lethal-injection drug for tonight’s scheduled execution,” Rutledge’s filing in the Arkansas Supreme Court states.
On Wednesday, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray sided with drug supplier McKesson Corp., noting that the company could suffer “irreparable harm” if the supply obtained by the state was used in lethal injections.
The Arkansas attorney general referenced that a similar injunction in Pulaski County Circuit Court was overturned by the state’s high court earlier this week.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray said in a written order after ruling before the court Wednesday that the state of Arkansas acted “in bad faith” when it bought one its drugs for lethal injections.
Gray, who granted supplier McKesson Corp.’s request for a temporary restraining order, had expressed that the ruling would be filed by 9:30 a.m. Thursday.
About 11:05 a.m., Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge had filed a motion asking that the written order be posted. The ruling was filed at 11:33 a.m.
Rutledge’s office can now proceed with an appeal of that ruling to the Arkansas Supreme Court, said Judd Deere, the attorney general’s spokesman.
Gray’s order outlines her reason for granting a temporary restraining order, including that state’s method for obtaining its supply of vecuronium bromide was “outside of their authority.”
“The court finds that in the absence of a preliminary injunction, plaintiff will suffer irreparable harm which cannot be adequately compensated by money damages or redressed by a court of law,” Gray said.
— Brandon Riddle
The planned executions of five Arkansas inmates remained halted as of Thursday morning, after court rulings effectively barred their deaths by lethal injection.
Still, the possibility of appeals remained hours ahead of the scheduled deaths of convicted murderers Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson. Both were transferred to the Cummins Unit, the site of the state's execution chamber, on Wednesday.
In the U.S. Supreme Court, attorneys for nine death-row inmates, including the five scheduled to die, have requested that justices reverse an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision that vacated a stay by a federal judge in Arkansas.
Justices have also received a request from the inmates asking for reconsideration of a case involving the state’s three-drug protocol for lethal injections.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge argued in a response Wednesday to the attorneys’ petition that the inmates “have enjoyed multiple opportunities to challenge their convictions, sentences and — critically — the method by which they will be lawfully executed.”
“Their guilt and the justness of their sentences are beyond any dispute,” Rutledge wrote.
Lawyers for the condemned inmates, in another filing Wednesday with the nation’s high court, wrote that the state’s opposition to a stay contained a “notable omission” — that the execution schedule “disregards the individuality of each man.”
“If a death row inmate is processed as part of a series of executions, those other executions are not ‘extraneous’ — they are central to the inmate’s right to be treated with the individualized dignity the Eighth Amendment requires,” that filing states.
In a ruling before the bench Wednesday evening, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray banned the state from using its supply of vecuronium bromide, which the judge said would result in “irreparable harm” to supplier McKesson Corp.
McKesson’s attorneys had argued that the company was unaware of the intended purpose of the drug when the Arkansas Department of Correction obtained the supply.
Gray indicated in court that she planned to issue a written ruling by 9:30 a.m. Thursday. No ruling had been filed by that time.
Judd Deere, Rutledge’s spokesman, said in a statement about 11:05 a.m. that the attorney general’s office had filed a motion with the state Supreme Court asking that Gray issue the written order.
“The attorney general cannot file an appeal of Judge Gray’s decision until she issues a written order,” Deere said.
The Arkansas Supreme Court on Wednesday also granted a stay to Johnson, who had requested additional DNA testing of evidence that his attorneys say could prove his innocence.
Arkansas originally set the executions of eight men over an 11-day span in April, a number that would have reflected the most by a state since the reinstatement of the death penalty by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.
As a result of legal challenges, three of those inmates have avoided death. Five more could still die by lethal injection before the end of the month.