VARNER, Ark. — Arkansas overcame a flurry of court challenges Thursday that derailed three other executions, putting to death an inmate for the first time in nearly a dozen years as part of a plan that would have been the country’s most ambitious since the death penalty was restored in 1976.
Ledell Lee was among eight inmates originally scheduled to be put to death before a lethal injection drug expires April 30. He was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m. Thursday, four minutes before his death warrant was due to expire.
Lee showed no signs of consciousness two minutes after the start of his execution, which began at 11:44 p.m., an Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution said. With arms extended, covered with a sheet, his head and hands covered with leather straps, Lee made no final statement and showed no apparent signs of suffering during the execution, which took 12 minutes.
“The governor knows the right thing was done tonight,” said J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who scheduled the multiple executions. “Justice was carried out.”
Lee, 51, was put on death row for the 1993 killing of his neighbor Debra Reese, who prosecutors said Lee struck 36 times with a tire tool her husband had given her for protection. Lee was arrested less than an hour after the killing after spending some of the $300 authorities said he had stolen from Reese.
The state originally set four double executions over an 11-day period in April. The eight executions would have been the most by a state in such a compressed period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The first three executions were canceled because of court decisions.
“I pray this lawful execution helps bring closure for the Reese family,” Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement issued minutes after Lee’s execution.
Two more inmates are set to die Monday, and one on April 27. Another inmate scheduled for execution next week has received a stay.
The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for Lee’s execution about a half-hour before his death warrant was set to expire at midnight, reports CBS Little Rock affiliate KTHV-TV. The nation’s high court rejected a round of last-minute appeals the condemned inmate’s attorneys had filed. An earlier ruling from the state Supreme Court allowing officials to use a lethal injection drug that a supplier says was obtained by misleading the company cleared the way for Lee’s execution.
“Arkansas’ 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,” said Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization that helped represent Lee in his last appeals.
Lee’s attorneys were looking to test a drop of blood on one of Lee’s shoes and hairs found at the crime scene, says KTHV. They also…