By KENNETH HART
A Greenup Circuit Court jury on Wednesday deliberated for only 40 minutes before finding Charles S. “Steve” Lee guilty of murder in the slaying of his wife, community activist Leslie “Crickett” Lanham-Lee.
The same seven-man, five-woman also recommended Lee spend the rest of his life in prison for the crime.
The verdict and sentencing capped an emotion-packed, high-profile six-day trial, likely the last one for Greenup Commonwealth’s Attorney Cliff Duvall, who is retiring when his current term expires at the end of the year.
Lee showed no emotion when Judge Bob Conley read the jury’s verdict and, later, its recommended sentence. Muffled sobs could be heard both times in the packed courtroom gallery. Many of those watching and listening were members of the Borrowed Angels Charity Riders, an organization founded by Lanham-Lee.
Under state sentencing guidelines, the parole eligibility for a life sentence is 20 years. Lee, 44, has already spent roughly a year in custody, meaning he will have to spend a minimum of 19 years behind bars. However, it’s rare in Kentucky for offenders to be granted parole the first time they seek it. And, even if he was to be released, Duvall noted, Lee would still be under the supervision of the Kentucky Department of Corrections for the remainder of his life.
Lanham-Lee, 40, was found dead in the couple’s apartment on East Main Street in Greenup the morning of March 4, 2011. She died of blood loss from a pair of roughly two-inch-deep stab wounds to the lower front portion of her neck, one of which severed her subclavian artery, which is fed by the aorta. A state medical exmainer testified she likely bled to death within about 10 minutes of that wound being inflicted. There were no signs of a struggle — the acrylic fingernails she was wearing were intact when her body arrived in Frankfort for an autopsy — and a screening of her bodily fluids showed no traces of drugs or alcohol.
Steve Lee told investigators he was not home when his wife was killed. He said he awoke about 4 that morning and couldn’t get back to sleep, so he went for a drive and found his wife dead when he returned home about two hours later. Lanham-Lee’s dog, a large boxer named Pandi whom friends said was fiercely protective of her, was also missing and was later found in the Howland Hill area near the A-A Highway.
Lee’s friend, Derek Justice, testified Lee had also given another version of the events surrounding Lanham-Lee’s death. Justice said Lee told him “three men with northern accents” broke into the apartment, held a gun to his head, threatened his children’s lives and stabbed his wife to death.
Lee also told investigators he believed his wife’s death may have been connected to an alleged run-in she had with members of the Pagans outlaw motorcycle gang and pointed to message scratched on the wall of the bedroom where her body was found as evidence of that.
But, in his closing remarks, Duvall told jurors Lee’s stories were highly implausible, at best, and that what actually happened was that Lee murdered his wife, staged the crime scene in an attempt to mislead authorities into believing she’d been killed by an intruder, then went about trying to piece together an alibi for himself.
Duvall acknowledged the lack of physical evidence tying Lee to the murder. The circumstantial evidence, though, he said, was overwhelming.
He pointed to two key pieces of scientific evidence that he said indicated Lanham-Lee’s death couldn’t have occurred within the time frame her husband said it did. One, he said, was the fact that the pasta Lanham-Lee had eaten for dinner the night of her murder was still in her stomach when Associate Chief Medical Examiner Dr. John C. Hansaker III performed the autopsy on her.
Lee told investigators the couple had eaten dinner shortly after 5 p.m. Had Lanham-Lee been killed between 4 and 6 a.m., as her husband said she was, the food would have already been out of her system, Duvall said.
Duvall also played a recording of Lee’s 911 call reporting his wife’s death for the jury. On the tape, Lee could be heard telling a dispatcher he knew his wife was dead because he tried moving one of her arms and found it to be stiff.
Duvall reminded jurors that Hunsaker had testified it took six to eight hours for rigor mortis — the stiffening of the body after death — to reach the extremities, meaning Lanham-Lee’s death could not have occurred within the two-hour window in which Lee said it did.
The story Lee told Justice also was preposterous, Duvall said, if for no other reason than it was highly unlikely intruders could have made their way into the apartment without the dog alerting the Lees to their presence.
Duvall also read jurors a series of emails between Lee and his former wife, Tonya Hunt, which indicated Lee was planning to leave his wife to reunite with Hunt. In one of the messages, Lee made reference to he and Hunt being together in “eight more days.” It was sent eight days prior to Lanham-Lee’s murder.
Both Duvall and Lee’s attorney, Jonah Stevens of Pikeville, spent much of their closing remarks talking about an orange-and-black glove found wrpped in the hooded sweatshirt Lanham-Lee was wearing when she was murdered. Stevens told jurors the glove was worn by the murderer, and the fact DNA tests performed on the glove excluded his client meant someone else had committed the crime.
“The commonwealth has to prove his (Lee’s) hand in that glove,” he said. “And, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt his hand was not in that glove.”
Duvall, though, said the glove — which matched the type of gloves that were passed out to employees of Norfolk & Southern Railroad, where Lee worked as a locomotive engineer — was yet another red herring planted at the scene by Lee to throw investigators off his trail.
For one thing, Duvall said, it Lanham-Lee had been killed by outlaw bikers or hitmen, as her husband maintained, it’s unlikely they would have left such a damning piece of evidence at the murder scene. Also, Duvall noted, Lee acknowledged in an interview with Detective David Bocook of the Greenup County Sheriff’s Department, the lead investigator in the case, that the glove looked like the ones he’d been given at work.
“I don’t know that much about hit men, but, I do know they’d probably bring their own gloves to the scene of a murder,” he said. “I bet they wouldn’t leave one of them behind, either.”
The weapon used to kill Lanham-Lee was never found. The sheets and a pillowcases from the bed on which her body was found also were missing. Duvall told jurors it was the commonwealth’s theory that Lee threw those items off the Carl D. Perkins Bridge into the Ohio River, which he was running high at the time following a period of heavy rain.
In one of his interviews with Bocook, Lee admitted he’d stopped on the bridge on the way home from his drive. But, he said he did so because he’d dropped one of the soft drinks he’d purchased at a convenience store in West Portsmouth.
Conley scheduled Lee’s final sentencing for Nov. 8.
KENNETH HART can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2654.