Wednesday, April 26, 2017

TOP STORY >> Prison visit with Ledell Lee in 1994 still haunts

Leader executive editor

(Ledell Lee, 51, was executed Thursday for the murder of Debra Reese in February 1993 in the Sunnyside neighborhood in Jacksonville. We interviewed him in prison in October 1994 as he awaited a second trial. There was a mistrial earlier that year when it was discovered a juror with a felony record who was related to Lee was on the jury.)

Ledell (Skip) Lee of Jacksonville, an accused double murderer and multiple rapist, was eager to tell his side of the story from behind bars at the Tucker Maximum Security Unit.

Early last week, Lee called from prison to complain about the distorted media coverage he’s getting and offered to talk in person about how the Jacksonville Police Department was trying to get him executed for crimes he didn’t commit.

“I’ll tell you the real story that’s going on,” he said on the phone. “You’ve heard total lies about me. No one wants to hear the truth. I want to shine some light on it. I’m not saying this just to make things look good. I have the paperwork to prove what I’m saying.”

Lee, 29, is accused of strangling 22-year-old Christine Lewis in November 1989 before he went to prison on a theft charge.

Only a week after he was released on parole a year later, he allegedly raped a 70-year-old woman, leaving her for dead.

Prosecutors also allege he raped and beat a 17-year-old babysitter in 1990, thinking he had drowned her in a ditch, but she survived. He is also accused of raping a 52-year-old woman in 1991.

He was arrested in the beating death of Debra Reese, 26, in February 1993. All the victims were from Jacksonville. The victims were white, except for Lewis.

He was also a suspect but hasn’t been charged in the murder of Carolyn Johnson, a black Jacksonville prostitute, who was last seen talking with Lee in front of a supermarket in 1991.

Facing the death penalty, Lee was tried earlier this month in Little Rock for the Reese murder, but a mistrial was declared when a woman with a felony record who was related to Lee lied about her past and got on the jury. Convinced that Lee could not get a fair trial, she deadlocked the jury 11-1. Another trial is set for May.

Deputy Prosecutor Holly Lodge believes that Lee is utterly without remorse. He has no conscience and does not want to admit he is a serial killer, especially to his family, which is convinced he’s innocent.

Lodge says she is “determined to get him off the street. I haven’t had a case more important than Lee.”

As you approach the red-brick prison in the middle of the cotton fields, it looks like a modern high school, except for the narrow windows you notice as you get closer. Even if the windows were broken, only a cat could squeeze through them.

If an inmate got out, he’d still have to climb a tall fence with barbed wire and hope to avoid the attention of guards in several watchtowers.

No one has escaped from there since 1985, when some inmates got out through a laundry room that was still under construction two years after the prison opened.

A guard frisks the visitor at the front door and takes him to the warden’s office, where he gets permission to go inside the prison.

The guard and the visitor stop in front of two sets of sliding bars, which open when a guard signals to another guard in a glass-enclosed control room to let us through.

A button is pushed, which opens the first bars, then another a couple of yards away.

Nearby is a barber shop and a law library. The library is well stocked and is used a lot because most prisoners insist they didn’t do anything wrong and hope to have their convictions overturned.

While another guard gets Lee, the visitor waits in one of several cubicles with glass partitions where outsiders can meet prisoners.

Inmates in white uniforms hurry down a hallway near the visitor area. All in their 20s and 30s, they’re the personification of the crime issue that dominates political campaigns.

These killers and rapists and armed robbers commit their crimes when they’re young.

If there were a way to control the young before they go berserk, the prison population would fall dramatically.

Lee, also wearing white, arrives a few minutes later in handcuffs. A guard takes them off as Lee goes into the cubicle. The guards go away.

He brings with him a law book and several sheets of paper that he says will prove he’s innocent.

“They want to make me seem like a serial killer and rapist,” Lee says. “I’m not the person who committed these crimes.”

He is standing because the bottom of the glass partition is painted green and it’s hard to see across if both people are sitting.

Lee, who has a goatee, is 6 feet tall and trim, but he looks strong. He is strong enough to have strangled and raped the women, authorities believe. He has long fingers and nails, which the victims who survived have noted.

But he protests his innocence, saying he was set up.

“I had nothing to do with any of this,” he continues and points to the letters and affidavits that he believes will exonerate him if only his lawyer would listen to him.

He says the police tried to pressure him to agree to a plea bargain. Which he wouldn’t do. (The police deny any offers of a plea bargain.)

Although investigators have placed him in Debra Reese’s neighborhood on the morning she was killed, he says he was walking near the area on his way to see his parole officer, although he didn’t make his appointment.

He denies going door to door and telling women his car broke down and asking if their husbands were home to help him get his car started.

“I’ve seen pictures of Debra Reese’s body (at the trial),” Lee says. “She was beaten pretty bad. It hurts me to see that. It really touched me in the heart. There was so much blood, but there was no way blood wouldn’t have splattered on me. They didn’t find any blood on me.”

Evidence was shown at his trial that Reese was beaten to death with a rug wrapped around her, which would explain why her killer wasn’t covered in blood.

Police say they found some blood on Lee’s tennis shoes, and his footprints were also at the crime scene.

DNA tests that link him to the crime are inconclusive, Lee says. “They fit half of Jacksonville,” he says. “It’s not like OJ’s blood.”

The prosecution believes tests of Lee’s semen and hair samples prove he was involved in the crimes. His semen was found in all the victims.

Lee says he can’t remember where he was on the night Christine Lewis was murdered. He says the police had a different suspect, but then they settled on him. He points out that one of Lewis’ small children who witnessed her kidnapping said “two bogeymen” had gone into their home and took away their mother.

Although a man who knows Lee told police of driving the accused to the Lewis’ home, Lee denies it.

Christine Lewis’ parents live behind his parents’ home. He knows the Lewis family and likes them, he says.

“The girl was killed by mistake,” he adds, but insists he didn’t do it.

“They postponed the Lewis trial because they have no evidence against me,” he says. “I want it to get to trial. The Lewis case won’t go to trial.”

The prosecution believes it has plenty of evidence, besides his semen, to convict him. He goes on trial in March for the Lewis murder.

Lee also denies raping three other women. It upsets him that he’s accused raping a 70-year-old.

“That hurts me,” he says. “My heart stopped beating for two seconds when they gave me that charge. I’ve always had women. I wouldn’t do anything like that.”

He sympathizes with the victims’ families.

“I think about the pain and suffering they’re going through,” he continues.

But they’re trying to make him a victim, too, he adds.

“They’re looking for revenge. They’re blinded against finding the truth. They’re prosecuting me with opinions, not facts. All these unsolved crimes, they had to find somebody. I fill the description of a tall, slim guy.”

Lee knows he faces the death penalty, which makes him uncomfortable.

“I’m nervous,” he admits. “I fear the unknown.”

But then he says. “I can’t be scared. I’m not guilty of these charges.”

(Postscript: Lee was re-tried the following year for killing Debra Reese and found guilty of capital murder. He was executed 22 years later by lethal injection at 11:40 p.m. Thursday and pronounced dead 10 minutes later at the Cummins Maximum Security Prison. He was never tried for Christine Lewis’ murder since he was sentenced to die in the Reese case.)