Barring a successful appeal, Charles Steven “Steve” Lee will spend at least the next 19 years in prison for murdering his wife, Leslie “Crickett” Lanham-Lee.
Greenup Circuit Judge Bob Conley on Thursday upheld the recommendation of the jury that last month convicted Lee in the March 4, 2011, slaying, sentencing him to life in prison.
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 another 19 years behind bars before he can meet with the parole board. 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, Lee would still be under the supervision of the Kentucky Department of Corrections for the remainder of his life.
By law, Lee’s case will be automatically appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court. Conley on Thursday granted a motion by Lee’s attorney, Jonah Stephens of Pikeville, to be released from the case so the state Department of Public Advocacy can handle Lee’s appeal.
Lanham-Lee, 40, was found dead in the apartment she and her husband shared on East Main Street in Greenup. 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. 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.
However, Lee later told a friend his wife had been killed by “men with Northern accents” who had broken into the couple’ apartment and held him at gunpoint.
Greenup Commonwealth’s Attorney Cliff Duvall told jurors Lee’s stories were highly implausible at best, and that what actually happened was that Lee killed his sleeping wife, staged the crime scene to make it appear as though she’d been slain by an intruder, disposed of the physical evidence and then went about trying to craft an alibi for himself.
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 said was running high at the time following a period of heavy rain.
In one of his interviews with Detective David Bocook of the Greenup County Sheriff’s Department, the lead investigator in the case, 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.
Duvall also introduced evidence that Lee was planning to leave his wife to reunite with his former wife, Tonya Hunt. Among that evidence was a series of emails between Lee and Hunt that Duvall said essentially constituted a day-by-day countdown to Lanham-Lee’s murder.
At Thursday’s hearing, Duvall — who did not seek re-election and is retiring at the end of the year — said Lanham-Lee’s daughter, Emily Lanham, who lives in Pennsylvania, had written a victim impact statement and asked that it placed in the case record.
Duvall didn’t read the letter in its entirety, but in it, he said, Emily wrote of the sense of loss she felt over losing her mother. She also stated she and her 3-year-old son, Xavier, had been making plans to travel to Kentucky to visit Lanham-Lee and had been scheduled to arrive just a day or two after her murder.
Emily Lanham also wrote of her mother’s “betrayal” by the man who was supposed to love and protect her, of how much she missed having her mother with her at her wedding this past June and of how her mother’s slaying had deprived her of “the simple joys of life,” Duvall said.
“In the end, she simply asks you impose the life sentence,” he told Conley. “I have to concur with that.”
Stephens said his client continues to maintain his innocence. He also noted Lee had a previously spotless criminal record and asked Conley to consider showing him leniency on the basis of that.
Conley said he was bound by law to consider a lesser sentence or probation. However, he said in the end he felt the jury’s recommendation of life was well-supported by the evidence in the case.
Lanham-Lee was a staunch advocate for abused children and wounded veterans, and just days before her murder, she was honored by the Kentucky General Assembly for her efforts to raise money for charities that assist child abuse victims. She was also the founder of an organization known as the Borrowed Angels Charity Riders, a confederation of female motorcycle enthusiasts.
Several Borrowed Angels members were in the courtroom for the sentencing hearing. One, Sheila Shain of Shepherdsville, said later that while in Greenup, the group paid tribute to Lanham-Lee’s legacy by dropping off a load of donated toys at Pathways to be given to needy children at Christmas.
“It was nice to be able to bring something back to Greenup, since Greenup was so good to our sister,” she said.
Shain also encouraged others wanting to honor Lanham-Lee’s memory to make similar donations this holiday season.
KENNETH HART can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2654.