Amid rising controversy over the drugs used in its lethal-injection protocol and a flurry of legal battles in the last week attempting to stop its expedited execution plan, the state of Arkansas carried out its first execution in more than a decade Thursday night.
Ledell Lee, 51, was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m. Central Time, just four minutes before his death warrant would have expired. The New York Times reports that Lee was put to death at the Cummins Unit, a prison in southeast Arkansas. He had received multiple reprieves at both the state and federal levels, but they were all overturned.
Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, said that Lee requested the Holy Communion in lieu of a last meal.
From the Times:
An evening of appeals kept Mr. Lee alive as his death warrant neared its midnight expiration. The Supreme Court, as well as a federal appeals court in St. Louis, issued temporary stays of execution while they considered his legal arguments. In Little Rock, the Arkansas capital, Gov. Asa Hutchinson monitored developments at the State Capitol.
At one point on Thursday night, the United States Supreme Court nearly halted Mr. Lee’s execution, but decided, 5 to 4, to allow the state to proceed with its plan, which had called for eight prisoners to be put to death over less than two weeks. The court’s majority — which included the newest justice, Neil M. Gorsuch — did not explain its decision, but in a dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer complained about how the state had established its execution schedule because of the approaching expiration date of Arkansas’s stock of midazolam.
“In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random,” Justice Breyer wrote. “I have previously noted the arbitrariness with which executions are carried out in this country. The cases now before us reinforce that point.”
Whether or not Lee would actually be executed was up in the air all day and well into the night on Thursday. Lawyers raised concerns about Lee’s intellectual capacity as well as the personal conduct and conflicts of people involved in his trial. At one point, a state judge’s ruling had blocked the state from using one of its execution drugs, leaving open the possibility that Lee might live past the midnight expiration of his death warrant.
Ultimately, the courts ruled that the execution could go on as scheduled, and Lee became the first prisoner to be executed in Arkansas since 2005.
Throughout it all, Lee maintained his innocence in the bludgeoning death of a woman named Debra Reese, but a jury convicted him in 1995, and the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld that ruling in 1997.
Earlier this month, the Arkansas Parole Board said that Lee’s plea for clemency was “without merit,” and on Tuesday, a judge declined to delay his execution.
“The verdict has been attacked, appealed and considered multiple times here and in higher courts, and this court will not now substitute its own judgment for that of the jurors two decades removed,” Judge Herbert T. Wright Jr. of the Circuit Court in Little Rock wrote in an order Tuesday.
Lee was one of two men scheduled to die Thursday evening.
Stacey E. Johnson received a stay of execution Wednesday night after lawyers on his case made a request for additional DNA testing to prove his innocence in the 1993 beating, strangling and killing of Carol Heath.
The state of Arkansas plans to execute three more men next week to beat the clock on its expiring drug supply.
Read more at the New York Times.