Convicted murderer Ledell Lee was executed in Arkansas on Thursday shortly before midnight, the state’s first death row execution since 2005.
Witnesses said Lee had no final words before he was given a lethal injection, minutes before his death warrant was set to expire.
Outside the governor's mansion, vigils were held in protest. On social media, pictures and video showed protesters praying, or carrying signs that read "Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Others bore candles during the somber ceremonies.
Lee’s last meal, according to the Associated Press, was Holy Communion.
Thursday’s execution put Arkansas squarely in the center of the death penalty debate, renewed after the state announced plans to put eight people to death over the course of 11 days this month in a race to use its lethal injection drugs before one of them expires.
Courts had blocked the first two executions, which had been scheduled for Monday, as well as another that had been scheduled for Thursday.
But they allowed the execution of 51-year-old Lee, who had sought a last-minute stay through the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court after lawyers from the Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union argued for fresh DNA testing that they believed would vindicate him.
Lee was convicted in the 1993 murder of 26-year-old Debra Reese, the mother of a 6-year-old boy. She was robbed and strangled in her Jacksonville, Ark., home. Prosecutors said Lee then beat her 36 times with a tire thumper her husband had given her for protection.
Prosecutors came forward with evidence that Lee had previously committed violent crimes against several other women, though he maintained his innocence until his death.
“Tonight the lawful sentence of a jury which has been upheld by the courts through decades of challenges has been carried out. The family of the late Debra Reese, who was brutally murdered with a tire thumper after being targeted because she was home alone, has waited more than 24 years to see justice done,” Atty. Gen. Leslie Rutledge said in a statement. “I pray this lawful execution helps bring closure for the Reese family.”
The execution had been held up at several points throughout the evening, with stays and appeals being reviewed simultaneously by the federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. issued the final denials on Lee's appeals, and the stay was lifted about 11:30 p.m.
The case had been closely watched by supporters and opponents of capital punishment, and high-profile death penalty critic Sister Helen Prejean expressed her dismay on Twitter.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has lifted the stay of execution. Arkansas will now kill Ledell Lee,” Prejean tweeted at 11:26 p.m. — just 34 minutes before Lee’s death warrant was set to expire.
Lee on Thursday declined a last meal and opted instead to receive Communion, the Associated Press reported.
Many of the legal arguments focused on the three drugs used in lethal injections. The state’s supply of one, midazolam, expires April 30. McKesson Corp., the wholesaler of another, vecuronium bromide, had filed for a temporary restraining order last week to keep Arkansas from using it.
The company said it had been misled because the state had never said it planned to use the drug in executions.
A temporary restraining order was put in place April 14, but three days later the state Supreme Court removed it, agreeing with Rutledge that the judge who issued it was biased because he had attended an anti-death-penalty protest.
McKesson filed for a new restraining order, which was approved Wednesday but then removed Thursday afternoon by the state Supreme Court.
“We believe we have done all we can do at this time to recover our product,” the company said in a statement lamenting the ruling.
That court also denied attempts by the makers of the other drugs to join McKesson’s fight.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Rutledge and prosecutors claimed the last-minute legal proceedings were a calculated effort by defense attorneys to run out the clock and stymie the executions.
“Through the manipulation of the judicial system, these men continue to torment the victims' families in seeking, by any means, to avoid their just punishment,” the prosecutors said in a joint statement issued Thursday.
The eight executions originally scheduled between April 17 and April 27 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.
Hutchinson set the execution dates in February, drawing instant condemnation from death penalty opponents.
Bruce Earl Ward, 60, who had been convicted of strangling an 18-year-old woman in Little Rock in 1990, got a reprieve Monday. So did Don Davis, who was convicted of killing Jane Daniel the same year.
In addition to Lee, Stacey Johnson was set to be executed Thursday night, but the attorney general chose not to appeal the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision to keep his stay in place. Johnson, 47, was found guilty of killing Carol Heath in 1993.
The remaining four executions are still scheduled for next week, though more court challenges are expected.
One of the men scheduled to die, Jason McGehee, 40, currently has a stay in place and is unlikely to face execution because the legal process would extend beyond the April 30 deadline.
Public support for capital punishment, which peaked in the mid-1990s, when 80% of Americans favored the death penalty, is now at its lowest level since 1972, according to the Pew Research Center.
Its poll in September showed 49% of Americans supported executions for convicted murderers.
11:30 p.m.: The article was updated with additional details of the execution and background on Lee.
10:20 p.m.: The article was updated with additional details of the execution.
10:10 p.m.: The article was updated with news of the execution.
10 p.m.: The article was updated throughout with staff reporting.
9:40 p.m.: This article was updated with news that the Supreme Court had cleared the way for the execution.
4:15 p.m.: This article was updated with news that Arkansas planned to proceed with its first execution since 2005.
This article was originally published at 2:25 p.m.