DNA and the Death Penalty: Why Ledell Lee’s Case Should Increase Calls for Abolishment

“The death penalty kills innocent people.”

This is what reads upon the hoodie and T-shirt from the Forgive Everyone Collective, an abolitionist screen printing collective from Grand Rapids, Michigan. On it, the names of 173 individuals who were sentenced to death and later exonerated are featured on the item, and Ledell Lee might have been another to add—but he was executed for murder in a flurry of lethal injections despite lawyers’ calls for DNA testing.

“No one should be executed when there is a possibility that that person is innocent,” attorney Nina Morrison said in April 2017, just after Lee—convicted in the 1990s—became the first person put to death in Arkansas in more than a decade. This week, four years later, attorneys shared word that genetic material from the murder weapon in Lee’s case pointed to someone else. On the handle of the bloody club apparently used to bludgeon Debra Reese to death, new testing found DNA from an unknown man, in an effort led by The Innocence Project, the American Civil Liberties Union and Lee’s family to exonerate him even after his execution.

25 states, including, Kansas, Indiana, Virginia and Texas still have the death penalty, according to a 2020 study. Four others, Colorado, Pennsylvania, California, and Oregon have suspended the law until deemed worthy again. And even despite what may be looked at like “diminished usage,” the flaws and failures of capital punishment are more apparent than ever before. In a study released in October 2015, 156 individuals have been exonerated from death row, which means for every 10 people who have been sentenced to death, only one person has been set free. As Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson tells it, even if the new evidence were to have been submitted before Ledell Lee’s execution date, he would’ve ignored the chance of examining the discovery and called for his death. “They [the Supreme Court] affirmed the convictions and it’s my duty to carry out the law,” Hutchinson said, reacting during Wednesday’s news briefing. “The evidence obviously that’s been uncovered is inconclusive and the fact is that the jury found him guilty based upon the information that they had.”

Guilty.

It is uniquely interesting how that word can subscribe a man to death in a Christian country that professes to expound values found in the Ten Commandments. While many outside a certain demographic know this to be untrue, you would think that those Boastful Bible Thumpers would realize the hypocrisy in their behavior. In the King James’ version of the Holy Scriptures, the argument is made that “thou shalt not kill” should be interpreted as “thou shalt not murder,” which when placed against how many innocent lives the American death penalty has taken, that this “act of justice” would be deemed an affront against God.

According to the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP, there are 2,620 people on death row in the US as of Jan. 1, 2020. 

This includes Mumia Abu Jamal, a political activist and journalist who was sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer, but who’s sentence was overturned by a Federal court in 2011.

And since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated by the US Supreme Court, states with the “legal authority” to do so have executed 1,516 people (as of July 2020). 

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How does ending one’s life—especially an innocent or potentially innocent one—make one accountable for their actions? The Forgive Everyone Collective defines accountability as “understanding one’s harm, choosing transformation, and committing to systemic change.” Ledell Lee’s family, equipped with evidence that counters the claim, even after his execution, points out just how important it is to abolish the death penalty. According to The Innocence Project, eighteen people have been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing in the United States after serving time on death row. Think about how those people served a combine 229 years in prison—including 202 years on death row—for crimes they didn’t commit, and then think of them being denied because new evidence is “inconclusive” or “the jury found them guilty based upon the information that they had.”

And then open your eyes and see Ledell Lee.

While his innocence or guilt can no longer be argued, what can is that the death penalty has again come under spotlight for all the wrong reasons. It is state-sanctioned revenge that does not achieve accountability, healing or transformation—and it definitely does not improve public or personal safety. 

We’re all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done, because we’re all capable of change and growth. The death penalty affects and traumatizes everyone it touches. If our criminal justice system is to pull from the brink of insanity, it should be designed not just to punish, but to rehabilitate and offer transformation, redemption and grace—without foreclosing that opportunity. 

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