Ledell Lee’s last words before being executed in 2017 were, “I’m an innocent man”.
Four years later that statement has taken on eerie meaning as new DNA evidence has been discovered in the murder he was convicted of carrying out.
Lee, who was 51 when he died, was given the death penalty in Arkansas for the 1993 murder of Debra Reese, and now lawyers for his family say someone else’s DNA was found on the murder weapon.
Lee’s family commissioned testing of the wooden club used in the murder, and say results last month found traces of an unknown man.
Their lawyers claim the DNA that was found matches DNA also found on a white shirt that had been wrapped around the murder weapon.
In a bid to clear Lee’s name, lawyers also had DNA testing done for six hairs that were found at the crime scene which ruled Lee out as a potential source in five of the six hairs.
“I think if those results had been had before he was executed, he’d still be alive,” Lee’s lawyer Lee Short told CNN.
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US non-profit legal organisation The Innocence Project earlier said there was “no physical evidence directly (connecting) Lee to Reese’s murder.”
Following the new test results, it told CNN the results did not show an ”absolute or conclusive” connection to Lee.
Lee’s sister, Patricia Young, provided a statement through the Innocence Project in the wake of the explosive results.
“We are glad there is new evidence in the national DNA database and remain hopeful that there will be further information uncovered in the future,” Young said.
“We ask for privacy for our family in this difficult time.”
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Lee was convicted of Reese’s murder in 1995, after the then 26-year-old woman was found dead in her Arkansas home after being strangled and beaten with a wooden club.
Neighbours reported seeing Lee in the area which was used as the smoking gun evidence in his trial.
He was executed on April 20, 2017.
In the lead up to his execution date, the US Supreme Court denied Lee’s lawyer’s multiple requests for stays of execution.
Short was seeking to have the DNA evidence in the case tested for the first time in a last ditch-attempt to save his client from lethal injection.
“The reasoning given by the judge was it wouldn’t matter. That there were three people who saw him at or near that neighbourhood on that day and time and honestly the DNA just wouldn’t matter,” Short told the publication.
Short also conceded it could have been too late, due to the lethal injection drugs expiring by the time the results would have been received.
Before he died, Lee told the BBC, “My dying words will always be, as it has been … I am an innocent man.”