April 23, 2012 1:29:45 PM
In our nation's extensive prison system are thousands of captives, many of whom ought to be kept right there, and many of whom will tell you they are being kept unfairly because they are innocent. It's not at all surprising that even the guilty would make a claim of innocence, but over the past couple of decades we have learned that a surprising number of these claims, even issued from those being kept on death row, are truthful. The case of the arrest, trials, conviction, and sentencing to death of Edward Lee Elmore for rape and murder has "nearly all the issues that mark the debate about capital punishment: race, mental retardation, bad trial lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct, 'snitch' testimony, DNA testing, a claim of innocence." That's a description from Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong (Knopf) by Raymond Bonner. Bonner is perfectly positioned to write this book; he has practiced and taught law and has been an investigative reporter. This is not a polemic against the death penalty, and it does not need to be. It is a great true story told with skill; it is only inevitable that the facts will cause readers to doubt how fairly capital punishment can be administered. Within these pages are entrenched good old boys running the police and courts of a small South Carolina town, facing do-gooder idealistic attorneys from outside who come in to fight the system. The one thing the book does not have is a happy ending, for it does not have an ending yet; in a deal shortly after the book's publication date, Elmore was freed only after pleading guilty to the murder, which he still denies he committed.
In 1982, the body of Dorothy Edwards, a 76-year-old widow, was found stuffed into a closet in her home in Greenwood, SC. A neighbor found the body, and when the police came, the neighbor called their attention to clues like a beeping alarm clock and an open copy of the widow's guide to the television schedule. The clues nicely pointed to a particular time of death, and the neighbor also suggested that police ought to look closely at Elmore as the culprit. Elmore had, after all, washed Mrs. Edwards's windows recently. Police took the hint and here is the evidence they found at the scene: one of Elmore's fingerprints was on a window that she had paid him to clean, and also he was a payee of a check she had written. That's it. Far more convincing was that Elmore was black and Mrs. Edwards was white, and what the investigators at the scene lacked in gathering real evidence, they made up for in the speed with which they did their work. They did not photograph the bed on which a brutal rape had allegedly occurred. They didn't keep the sheets for evidence. Other evidence was gathered, and some went to people who had nothing to do with the investigation, and some got lost, and some was found again and some was not. The medical examiner then declared an unlikely but helpful time of death in a botched report. No one checked out just why that neighbor was being so helpful.
A murder case usually takes a year to come to court, but less than three months after this murder, the state was ready to begin its trial. Elmore, an amiable man who could do little but odd jobs, since he dropped out of fifth grade when he was fourteen and still read at second-grade level, could of course do no better than getting public defenders. One of his defenders was a racist and referred to Elmore in racist terms, and the other was drunk during the trial. They did not call independent experts and they did not even read the interviews of the witnesses, police interviews which the prosecution was required to make available to them. The chief prosecutor, a bully with a fierce temper known all around Greenwood, presented a convincing if misleading picture of the state's case, and he easily destroyed Elmore on the stand. The judge rushed things through and plainly indicated to the jury that he thought Elmore was guilty. In one week, Elmore was convicted and sentenced to death.
Elmore had advocates, and the conviction was overturned. In a retrial, he had the same defense attorneys, and got the same judgement against him, and a third trial on just the sentencing overturned nothing. Eventually his case came to the attention of the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center, where Diana Holt took on the case. If a movie gets made of this story, actresses are going to fight to get to play Holt. She had run away from her Waco, Texas, home at age seventeen because she was being brutalized by her stepfather. She messed around with drugs, had two bad but speedy marriages, and did prison time for armed robbery. Eventually, she returned to school, did exceedingly well, and was accepted to the University of Texas for law school. She had a passion for public service work, and helping with death penalty cases was just what she wanted. She liked Elmore and realized that he didn't have the mental capacity to make a good defense with bad lawyers defending him. When she and her colleagues started looking into the facts of the case, and the way the defense had botched them, they were increasingly convinced that Elmore was innocent.
Unfortunately, innocence is not a very good defense for someone already convicted. A condemned man may be able to turn up persuasive evidence that he was innocent or even had been nowhere near the crime scene. Once the conviction has been made, however, such evidence might mean nothing, unless he can show that during the proceedings against him his constitutional rights were violated. Once he is found guilty, any presumption of innocence is gone forever. Bonner gives examples of prosecutors arguing that a death row convict ought to continue to the electric chair undeterred by evidence that absolutely exonerates him, because, simply, he was legally and constitutionally convicted and innocence is somehow beside the point. That's one gross unfairness in our legal system. The other is that the judicial system can be played by prosecutors toward the wrong goal. Although every defense attorney has as a goal getting an accused man declared innocent, prosecutors do not, or should not, have the goal of getting him declared guilty. They have the solemn duty of pursuing justice, not courtroom victories. Too often, given the adversarial foundations of our legal proceedings, the eagerness to win quite understandably trumps the drive toward justice, since prosecutors are likely to see winning a guilty verdict as bringing justice. Then, too, police and the public are invested in finding a culprit and punishing him, and the impulse to do just that, and quickly, can easily overcome the higher motive of providing a just outcome.
Bonner has written a true page-turner, a factual book that could be enjoyed by anyone who likes novels by Grisham or Turow. He cites other examples besides Elmore's case and shows that the way the system malfunctioned for him was no fluke but represents some fundamental flaws in the way we administer capital justice. If Elmore could come so close to being executed, it trashes the argument that 100% of the other convicts on death row can be nothing but guilty. It's a convincing case, but Bonner is right to tell the story without advocacy and to let the facts speak for themselves. They didn't, after all, get a chance to do so in Elmore's trials.